Flipping the Social Justice Script

Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”

Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.

The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.

The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.

Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.

These are just a few examples of script flipping:

[Read more...]

[guest post] Let’s Not Call People “Illiterate”

Frequent guest poster CaitieCat is back with a short piece about classism and how we call people out.

One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about recently in feminist circles is the concept of ‘splash damage’ – the idea that sometimes taking aim at one thing in a particular way ends up causing harm to other groups. Things like describing ‘people with uteri’ as exclusively women, white feminism assuming the centrality of the white upper/middle-class experience, using ‘crazy’ as a synonym for ‘person with repugnant ideas’.

In that vein, I’d like to introduce the idea that when we jibe at people as ‘illiterate’, or assert/imply that someone’s inability to spell according to the rules of ‘standard English’ means that their ideas aren’t worth listening to, or that they are inherently less worthy ideas for being expressed in a way that isn’t standard for upper/middle-class people…we are being classist.

Particularly in a US context, where educational options are very strongly influenced by class (and race, in an intertwined manner), riding the xenophobes for misspelling ‘illegals’ as ‘illeagles’, or “Muslim” as “muslin”, what we’re saying is, “You should have been smart enough to get yourself born to the right kind of parents, who’d give you access to the best education, who were educated themselves enough to teach you ‘proper’ English, and who were rich enough to make sure you never had to work after school instead of studying!”

I’m speaking from experience here. Yeah, I talk just like a toff now, but I’m from a seriously poor, working-class background.  Like, ‘familially homeless’ poor.

I’m the first person in my extended family to ever attend university (I finished a baccalaureate in linguistics, and had to drop a master’s in order to transition in the still notoriously transphobic  early 90s). Only the second to finish secondary education. Neither parent got an O level (grade 11-ish, for the North Americans).I worked after school all the way through high school, and took two jobs to get through university.

So I grew up speaking a working-class dialect, and it was very much the product of hard work and dedication, and love of language itself, that allowed me to learn to talk so good.I can code-switch now, speaking in my natural working-class accents (English and Canadian), or my learned ‘standard English’, which is solely Canadian (well, mostly).

I don’t think I need to give you examples, do I? Or much further argument?

Let’s focus our opprobrium on their ideas, and leave the classist shit to the 1%. When we are classist, we’re only helping the oligarchs, by diminishing people who should be our allies. We wonder why they vote against their class interests, and then we act as though we despise their class every time we do this. We should be better than this.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

[Content note: mental illness, including eating disorders]

This post was requested by Kate [not FtB!Kate], who donated to my conference fundraiser. She wanted to hear my opinion on mental health in the workplace and how employees and employers can foster a culture that values and promotes mental health. She had some of her own suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this piece with her permission.

Work is often a concern for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They might worry, for instance, that their struggles will impact their work performance, that coworkers or employers will find out that they have a diagnosis and stigmatize (or even fire) them, or that offhand comments at work could trigger eating disorder symptoms.

I wrote about this topic much more generally in this piece, which was about how to prioritize and promote mental health in one’s community. Workplaces are particular types of communities, so a lot of this still applies. At the same time, workplaces present particular challenges to promoting mental health, as well as particular capabilities that might help.

Note that I’m writing this as a person with a mental illness, as a person who works, and as a person who observes human behavior. I’m not writing this as someone who’s ever been a manager or a supervisor, so while I can speak to what I would like to see from managers and supervisors, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be one. If you have that experience and you’d like to weigh in in the comments, feel free to do so.

For employers/managers/supervisors

1. Ensure that the assignments you give your employees and the culture you foster in the office encourage and allow employees to take good care of themselves.

Every workplace that expects people to skip lunch or sleep less than 7 hours a night is a workplace that is detrimental not only to physical health, but mental health as well. Sleep deprivation can dangerously exacerbate many mental illnesses, and having to skip meals can cause people with eating disorders to relapse. Obviously this is unavoidable with certain jobs or when a big important project is nearing completion, but it’s avoidable with most jobs most of the time.

(At the same time, recognize that this is a problem with American culture at large, and companies feel pressure to pressure their employees in this way because if they don’t, a competitor will, and it’ll reap the profits.)

2. Make sure that new employees understand the health coverage they’re receiving under the company’s benefits plan, especially as it pertains to mental health.

Explain in as little legalese as possible what the coverage includes and doesn’t include, and where they can go to find more detailed information or look up specialists in their area. In my experience, many people are worried that if they see a mental health professional using their employer-provided insurance plan, their employer will somehow have access to their medical records. Emphasize that it’s none of your business as an employer what your employees do with their health insurance and that providers cannot disclose such information to you without a patient’s consent. For extra points, give a short overview of HIPAA.

Going over this information not only improves the odds that employees are able to get the mental healthcare they need, but it shows that you’re comfortable discussing mental health with employees and that your company thinks it’s important.

3. If you choose to have health-related contests at the office, focus them on fitness goals or healthy eating, not weight loss.

Personally, though, I’d avoid these altogether because many people consider health a personal matter and feel pretty uncomfortable about having to discuss it publicly and competitively. Even if the contest is optional, keep in mind that people will feel a strong social pressure to join in. Who wants to be the only person in the office who doesn’t seem to care about staying in shape?

In any case, framing weight loss as an intrinsically healthy and positive goal is harmful and counterproductive. You can weigh little and be very unhealthy, and if you lose weight in an unhealthy way, you’ll probably gain it back anyway. A better way to structure a health contest is by encouraging participants to achieve goals that are proven to be healthy and doable.

4. Make sure employees understand the policies and processes about taking time off for medical reasons (and remember that mental health is a medical issue).

It’s especially important to find a way to emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health, and little gestures make a big difference. For example, you could say something like, “If you know in advance you’re going to need time off, like for a physical or a therapy appointment, you can submit the form to me at at least a week’s notice.” That provides important information while also implicitly conveying the fact that you consider therapy to be a legitimate reason to leave work an hour early.

For employees

1. Consider your own mental health when choosing responsibilities to take on at work.

It’s understandable, especially in this economy, to try to impress your boss by offering to do as much as possible and overworking yourself. However, good mental health should be seen as an investment. If you take good care of it, you’ll ultimately be more productive than if you neglect it and burn out.

This applies to all those little volunteer opportunities that aren’t directly job-related, either. If you have social anxiety, it might be a bad idea to offer to organize a social outing for the office. If you have an eating disorder that makes it really stressful to choose food to buy, it might be a bad idea to offer to bring snacks for a meeting. You know yourself best.

2. If you feel safe and comfortable, let your boss know about mental health issues that may affect your performance and how you plan to deal with them.

The “if you feel safe and comfortable” is the key part. I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone can and should come out about their mental illness to their boss, since I know that in many cases that’s a really bad idea. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) But personally, I know people who did this and found it really helpful because they were able to work collaboratively with their boss to make sure that they can get the time off they need and that they can fulfill their responsibilities rather than having to keep it a secret and try to solve potential problems on their own. Disclosing also makes it possible to receive any accommodations you may need, which brings me to:

3. Educate yourself about laws related to mental illness and the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is obviously a major one, but so is HIPAA, which I mentioned earlier. The definition of “disability” in the ADA is intentionally quite general, but mental illnesses are included: depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and so on. Title I of the ADA concerns employment. There’s a lot of useful information in there; for instance, an employer cannot ask you in a job interview whether or not you’ve been treated for mental health problems, or which medications you’re taking. Keep in mind that the ADA only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, however. Here’s another useful article about it.

For everyone

1. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest (within reason).

In the piece I linked to earlier, I wrote:

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

At work, there are obviously different standards than in other communities, or with friends and family. But even at work, there’s room for honesty and mutual support.

2. Be mindful of using language that relates to mental illness.

Casual usage of diagnostic terms (“That’s so OCD,” “You’re being delusional,” etc.) hurts people with mental illnesses by trivializing their conditions and turning them into the butt of a joke. It also makes it more difficult for people to disclose mental illnesses because it keeps people from taking them seriously. If “ADHD” is what you call it when you can’t focus on a boring project and someone tells you they have “ADHD,” you’re not going to think, “Oh, this person has a serious condition that makes it neurologically impossible for them to focus on a task unless they get treatment.” You’re going to think, “Oh, come on, they just need to close Facebook and get focused.”

3. Remember that talking about dieting and weight loss can be very triggering for people with past or current eating disorders.

Fat talk (as it’s called) is so ingrained in our culture and communication patterns that it’s hard to imagine that it could be such a serious issue for someone. But anecdotally, it seems that eating disorders in particular are very easily triggered by offhand remarks like “Ugh I need to work off this cupcake” or “My thighs are huge.” Even when not actually triggering, these comments encourage unhealthy behavior and create a social norm of dieting and preoccupation with weight loss.

I sometimes dread being around groups of women who are not my friends because more likely than not, I’m going to hear these comments. And it’s not like you can avoid your coworkers. So if you must do it, try not to do it to a captive audience.

4. Respect others’ privacy when it comes to mental health issues.

Just as you should never out an LGBT person without their permission, you shouldn’t discuss someone’s mental health with others at the office. Although I generally encourage people to be open about mental illness if they feel they can be, that has to be on their terms, not someone else’s. If you’re concerned that someone’s mental health problems are causing them to be unable to do their work, do the same thing you’d (probably) do anytime a coworker isn’t pulling their weight: talk to them about it in a kind and considerate way rather than going straight to the boss.

(An exception to this is if you’re worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else. In that case, please call 911. )

When it comes to structural issues like ableism and stigma, no community can be an island, unfortunately. There will not be stigma-free workplaces until there is a stigma-free society. But the more power you have in a workplace, the more influence yo have over its culture.

Thank you to Kate for her donation and for this prompt. 

~~~

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Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park

Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[...] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.

~~~

Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

Social science relies on models. (No, not that kind.) If you’re familiar with social science, you might be used to referring to them as “theories.”

A theory or model in social science is like a theory or model in any other science. It is developed based on evidence and used to explain various phenomena. A model that is not developed based on evidence (but rather introspection or assumption) is probably not very useful, and neither is a model that can’t explain much. (See: psychoanalytic theory.)

In a great post on models that you should read all of before going any further, Crommunist says:

The key to models is this: all models are wrong. All of them. Every last one. However, some models, carefully designed, can help us test hypotheses about the world without having to somehow re-create a process in real life and then observe it directly. But the models are still wrong. They are, as a necessary consequence of their utility, reductive. They omit some data, they make assumptions, they do not explain every single observation, and they force some observations into states that they might not actually belong in the real world.

And so we constantly look to improve models. We strive to use the appropriate model to answer the appropriate question: the nuclear model is perfectly useful for answering questions about electron bonding and valence, but it’s less useful when we want to talk about the behaviour and movement of electrons. Newtonian mechanics is great if you want to predict what a baseball will do, but terrible if you want to predict what a quark will do. In the case where an old model fails to properly predict reality, we develop a more sophisticated model.

It is important to critique the models we use because that’s how we make them better. It’s also important to distinguish between criticism and denialism. People who support and promote models that are often unfairly attacked by denialists who have a vested interest in suppressing those models may start to mistake useful criticism for yet more denialism. Critics should be aware of this and endeavor to avoid using denialist talking points, accidentally or otherwise. (For instance, this is probably not the best time to use snark as a rhetorical device.)

Supporters, meanwhile, can do their part by welcoming smart, useful criticism and by continually seeking to improve their own views and arguments. In fact, sometimes the best critics are supporters who care deeply about making their models better.

So what I’ve decided to do here is to look at three models commonly used in social justice and point out some of their weak spots. I probably won’t get much into actually improving the models or else this post is going to be book-length, but I might do that in the future. I think there’s a dearth of good criticism of social justice concepts from people who actually understand those concepts and are willing to engage with them in good faith and support the idea of social justice in general, so hopefully I’ll be able to do something the MRAs and biological essentialists will never be able to do.

Some caveats:
1. This post contains a lot of intellectualizing and a little bit of devil’s advocate as they apply to a few social justice ideas. If you don’t like these things, please don’t read this post, but please don’t argue with my decision to write it, either.
2. I’m pointing out a few weak spots in a few models. I am not–not–saying that I think these models are completely flawed and should be thrown out. I think privilege exists. I think rape culture exists. I think gender is largely a social construct. 
3. While you’re welcome to discuss strengths of these models in the comments section, please don’t try to do so as an argument against anything I’m saying. If I point out a way in which a model is flawed and you point out a way in which that model works, you’re not proving me wrong (and I’m not proving you wrong, either). If you disagree with my analysis of the flaws themselves, that’s a different thing.

The three models I’ll be looking at are gender as performance, rape culture, and privilege.

I. Gender as performance

The idea that we “perform” gender originates with the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who wrote a rather dense book about it called Gender Trouble that I confess I haven’t read. But most people who use that term probably haven’t read it. It’s a sticky idea.

Gender-as-performance works very well to explain why many people who do not identify particularly strongly (or at all) with masculinity and femininity feel compelled to act in masculine or feminine ways. It also helps explain why someone’s femininity doesn’t necessarily correlate with their sense of being a woman, or their masculinity with their sense of being a man.

However, for the people for whom their assigned gender role feels fitting and appropriate, gender-as-performance doesn’t really explain much. Here someone might argue something like, “Well, deep down, they don’t really feel that masculinity (femininity) is natural for them, they’re just doing it because that’s what’s expected of them as a man (woman). But I don’t know how I feel about making such assumptions about what’s in people’s heads.

Butler’s model is also weak when it comes to explaining the experiences of trans people, particularly trans women. In her book Excluded, Julia Serano discusses this:

The assumption that my gender is artificial or a performance is regularly cited by those who wish to undermine or dismiss my female identity. I refuse to let anyone get away with the cissexist presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am a transsexual. And I similarly refuse to let anyone get away with the masculine-centric presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am feminine.

I also find the notion of femininity as a performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can ‘perform’ femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can talk with my hands or twirl my hair if I want. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused as to why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or why the other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all of the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely-oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expression in order to survive, but at a great cost.

I was one of the latter children. I know that for many cis queer women, femininity is something that others foist upon them, an unwanted burden, an expectation that they are unable or unwilling to meet. THis is perhaps why so many cis lesbian feminists have gone to such great lengths to argue that femininity is artificial, a mere artifact of patriarchy. But for me, femininity was like ether or air–it was always there, just waiting for the chance to leak out of me. When I think about gender expression being a ‘performance,’ I think about myself as a kid, watching my S’s when I spoke to make sure they didn’t linger. ‘Performance’ was me fighting back the urge to be more animated with my hands when I talked, or learning never to use words like ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’ nonsarcastically. ‘Performance’ was going to the barber to get my hair cut short like my parents wanted it, when what I really wanted was to let my hair grow long. Like I said, for me, masculinity always felt artificial, while femininity felt natural.

Not all trans women identify with femininity, but Serano shows that the idea of gender as a performance does not resonate with her experience of wanting desperately to be able to express herself in a feminine way, even as a young child. In fact, if all gender is merely performance, the existence of trans identities makes no sense. Being socialized as a boy should make you a masculine man. Being socialized as a woman should make you a feminine woman. End of story.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if the inconvenience of trans identities for certain second-wave feminist theories helps explain, in part, the vitriol and exclusion that trans people have historically faced from radical feminists.)

Of course, it’s possible that, as a trans woman, Serano was born with a sense of herself as a woman, but not with a sense of herself as feminine. The latter might have been part of the meaning that Serano attached to being a woman, given the prevalence of messages in the surrounding environment about what being a woman means. While we usually think of gender roles as something children learn through socialization, they also pick up plenty of not-so-subtle clues about how people of the other gender ought to act. In this way, gender-as-performance might still make sense, in that Serano learned to perform femininity because she thought of herself as a girl rather than the boy that others saw her as.

But that seems pretty spurious. I’d have to see the evidence that children at that age even know what it means to think of themselves “as a woman” or “as a man.”

Further evidence against the model of gender as performance is that inborn psychological gender differences do seem to exist. They aren’t nearly as significant or pronounced as the media and some evolutionary psychologists paint them to be, but they exist. Some studies have shown differences in perception between male and female infants at ages as young as four months. While most psychological gender differences seem to be created as a result of socialization and all the processes associated with it, it seems very unlikely that in just four months, male infants could have learned, through differential socialization, to become better than female infants at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Although I suppose it’s possible.

If psychological gender differences that are caused by biology exist, then there may be a small biological component to gender roles, as well.

Butler’s model of gender-as-performance implies a false dichotomy between things that are both natural and genuine and things that are both constructed and performative (or fake). Even if gender is completely a social construction, that does not mean that its expression is always a performance. True, some people must perform gender, as Julia Serano had to as a girl who was expected to behave like a boy. But for many (if not most) people, their gender role does not feel, and never has felt, like a role they have to perform as an actor would in a play. Gender could be a social construction that still feels real to people, because in constructing it, they make it real. The fact that gender feels so natural to most people does not have to mean that it is all biological, and the fact that it is socially constructed (to whatever extent) does not have to mean it is a mere performance.

In her book, Julia Serano rejects both gender determinism (the idea that gender is determined completely by biology) and gender artifactualism (the idea that gender is completely a social construct) and argues in favor of what she calls a holistic model of gender and sexuality, which is based on solid scientific evidence and accepts a role for all sorts of factors in the development of gender: biology (including genetics and other biological factors), socialization, environment, and so on. Her new model is an improvement over the simplistic models promoted by both the most myopic biologists and the most myopic gender theorists.

II. Rape culture

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to rape culture.)

If the central premise on which the model of rape culture rests–that our society trivializes, accepts, condones, encourages, or even at times celebrates rape–were completely true in all cases, you might not expect rape to actually be illegal. And even if it were, you might not expect for there to be any stigma associated with being a rapist. But there is. The problem is that it takes a lot to be considered a rapist. Often, not even undeniable evidence of rape will do it, because we keep shifting the goalposts of what rape is.

But if you do find your way into the rapist category, you might actually face consequences. And, while that infamous study suggesting that atheists are even less trusted than rapists was flawed, there’s a reason the “even less than rapists” part was so significant to so many people.

The prevalence of rape jokes is sometimes taken as evidence of the existence of a rape culture. I’m not sure where I fall on this. Some rape jokes, like the one Daniel Tosh famously made, seem very rape culture-y to me, because the joke is a woman being raped as punishment for not being quiet and feminine enough. Same goes for every time someone threatens to rape someone for having an opinion they disagree with on the internet, and same goes for every time someone makes a joke about prison rape, because again, that joke hinges on the unspoken belief that there are people who “deserve” rape.

Other rape jokes, however, resemble typical jokes about awful things like death or cancer. We (arguably) do not have a culture that trivializes or even promotes death or cancer, and yet we joke about them.

It’s the response that people get when they criticize rape jokes, though, that makes the strongest case. I find it hard to imagine someone saying, “Actually, my grandpa has cancer, so please don’t make those jokes around me,” and receiving anything other than an apology. Yet when women speak up against rape jokes, they are often ignored, ridiculed, or literally threatened with rape. (Because nothing makes the point “I am not a creepy rape apologist” better than threatening your interlocutor with rape.)

Because whether or not rape culture as a model explains the existence and popularity of rape jokes, it explains the fury with which many men respond tot he reminder that rape is a real horror that affects real humans.

Rape culture as a model is also not very useful for explaining the fact that consent and self-determination are devalued in many other contexts that have nothing to do with sex. Children are expected to hug relatives whether they want to or not. Pregnant women are subject to constant belly-touching by random strangers, so much so that laws have been passed against it. People of color have their hair touched without their consent all the time. People who don’t want to drink or go out or try a new food or play a game are often pressured into doing so by their friends. The idea of getting consent before hugging someone is often laughed at.

You could try to intersect this with the privilege model and claim that people who lack privilege in particular ways are more likely to have more powerful people try to override their right to autonomy, but then sex seems like just a subset of that general rule, as opposed to a special case called “rape culture.”

Some people extend “rape culture” to include all situations in which people’s consent is overridden, including non-sexual touching and various social situations. But parents inevitably (and understandably) bristle at being told that when they wheedle their child into giving Grandpa a hug, they are somehow promoting rape. While there are parallels between that and overriding people’s sexual consent, I don’t think those parallels are strong enough to justify claiming that a parent who wheedles their child into giving Grandpa a hug is promoting the very same rape culture that gets promoted every time a victim of sexual assault is asked what they were wearing at the time, or when a man expects sex from a woman because she smiled at him or because he bought her a drink.

Maybe a more useful way to conceptualize all of these patterns together isn’t by calling them all “rape culture,” but by referring to them as evidence that we lack a consent culture. That is, we have a culture that devalues consent in most (if not all) situations. (Here I make a mental note to write about this more later. [Edit: Actually, I sort of already have?])

III. Privilege

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to privilege.)

One problem with the concept of privilege is that it’s not always very useful at the individual level. For instance, say you’re talking about the way that women are taught to second-guess themselves while men are taught to be confident. This is true in a general, collective sense, but you can’t point at a specific man and say, “This man was taught to be confident.” Maybe he was, but maybe he was abused or bullied as a child and therefore learned not to be confident. Maybe he has a mental illness that precludes confidence. Maybe he’s a trans man who was socialized as a woman (and, in fact, whose very stratus as a man is constantly being contested). Maybe he simply missed out on this aspect of normative male socialization.

Privilege may also fail as a model when you try to use it to explain why some people understand certain things and others don’t. For instance, a feminist might claim that a man doesn’t understand why telling a woman not to wear revealing clothes as a rape-prevention tactic is wrong, and that he doesn’t understand it because he has male privilege that prevents him from ever having to deal with this firsthand. But many women also give the same slut-shaming “advice.” I’ve heard many women, including ones I know very well, say that a woman who goes out dressed “like a slut” is “asking for it.” But they also lack male privilege. What then?

Well, then many people use the term “internalization,” which basically means that you’ve accepted the messages our society sends about the group you belong to and assimilated these messages into your own beliefs. This explains why many women believe that women should stay at home and raise children, that “slutty” women “deserve” bad things, that women are less logical or capable of certain things than men, and so on.

But in that case, privilege isn’t doing very well as a model for explaining why many people believe these things about women. The women who believe these things may lack the same privileges as the women who do not believe these things.

(The internalization theory also works particularly awfully when used as a debate tactic. If you’ve ever witnessed a progressive man accusing a non-feminist woman of having “internalized” misogyny, or a white person accusing a person of color of having “internalized” racism, and cringed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Privilege as a model is also less useful in discussions of gender than discussions of other axes of marginalization. Namely, there are very real disadvantages to being male. There are. You’re more likely to be a victim of violence, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be profiled by the police (especially as this intersects with race and class status), more likely to have the burden of supporting an entire family (at least in certain demographics; this, again, intersects with race and class), less able to show your emotions, more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, more likely to commit suicide (though not to attempt), less able to come out as a rape survivor, more subject to gender role policing, and so on and so forth.

I don’t know if this is sufficient to argue for a so-called “female privilege” (especially since most proponents of the existence of female privilege insist that one of those privileges is being able to get laid more easily), but I do know that there are disadvantages men face because they are men, while there aren’t really any disadvantages that white people face because they are white or that straight people face because they are straight. (Most people who argue that there are seem to think that it puts them at a disadvantage when other people gain access to the rights and resources that they have had for centuries.) The disadvantages that men face also seem to stem from the same screwed-up system of gender roles that harms women as opposed to any supposed “power” that women have over men, or unearned advantages that they receive at men’s expense. (This is why MRAs are so misguided when they point out ways in which men actually are disadvantaged and blame it on women or, more bizarrely, the small minority of women who are feminists.)

Male privilege is also not sufficient to explain the fact that men’s gender roles are policed so much more stringently than women’s. While a (female) tomboy may face some disapproval, she probably won’t face nearly as much as a boy who wears dresses (or even “acts” feminine in some way). But people of all genders who choose not to present as either masculine or feminine face opprobrium, too. Maybe the way to explain this is three intersecting privileges: the privilege of being perceived as a man, the privilege of behaving in a masculine way, and the privilege of having your gender “line up” with the sex you were assigned at birth. But that starts to get very complicated.

Another problem: once you start conceptualizing privilege as a quantity that can be had or not had, people inevitably start quibbling over who has more of it–the much-maligned “oppression olympics.” Not having privilege comes an optimal state, and having privilege becomes bad in and of itself (as opposed to bad if it causes you to be ignorant or hurtful). An an essay on how the privilege concept may prevent collective thought and action, Andrea Smith writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

This way of thinking about privilege creates contexts in which it’s okay for someone without a certain privilege to say a certain thing, but not okay for someone with that privilege to say that thing. Of course, I’m being simplistic; often people without certain privileges are still rightly criticized for saying inaccurate or harmful things. But I’ve definitely come across situations where people have outright said, “If he/she/they weren’t a ______, it would’ve been okay.”

Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, it makes sense that members of marginalized groups can reclaim slurs and use them in a celebratory way while still reading those slurs as insults when used by people outside of the group, because you cannot reclaim a slur on someone’s behalf. And in many cases, our priors suggest that the same argument can read very differently when coming from different people. But this is just a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that works in many cases but not always. At its worst, it can keep harmful people trusted by those they are harming, or it can cause good-faith critics to be ostracized when their criticism might have been useful.

For instance, when I imagine this blog post being written by a man, I imagine it being read much less charitably than it’s (hopefully) being read having been written by a woman. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t succumb to that bias myself, because I’ve read so few good criticisms of feminist theories written by men. (Which is not to say that men are categorically incapable of producing good criticism of feminism, just that the majority of it tends toward your typical anti-feminist talking points.)

But maybe this is just more evidence that more of us insiders should become critics, like Julia Serano, a feminist, did in Excluded, and like every progressive atheist does when they criticize some of the reactionary threads in this movement.

Almost everyone lacks privilege in some ways (not just the silly and illegitimate ways Andrea Smith mentions in her essay), so it might not be particularly useful to speak of “having” or “not having” privilege in general. It might only make sense to speak very specifically: “You have the privilege of being perceived as white, so cops don’t profile you.” Or “You have the privilege of having been born into a family with lots of money.” (I discuss this more here.)

Absent from my critique of the concept of privilege is the fact that it pisses people off. It’s this criticism I see most often, sometimes from people who actually concede that such a thing undeniably exists, but we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s divisive/makes people feel bad/turns people off of social justice/distracts from the larger issues.

The word privilege offends because the idea of privilege offends. You could call it whatever you want and it would still offend, because people desperately want to believe (despite what your mom told you when you whined that “it’s not faaaair”) that this world is just and that we’ve earned everything good that’s in our lives. Nobody who has not yet abandoned the just world hypothesis will react well when confronted with the concept of privilege. While I wouldn’t call this a feature, I wouldn’t call it a bug, either. Just something we have to be aware of and work around.

I’ve also heard the argument that privilege is a poor choice of name for privilege because in its original meaning, it has a negative connotation. It’s associated with having nice things you didn’t have to work for, like trust funds or inherited manors in the countryside. The negative connotation of the original word comes from the fact that people “of privilege” in this sense often feel entitled to what they have and are ignorant of the struggles faced by those who do not share those privileges.

But, negative as that connotation may be, it is not entirely inapplicable to the social justice context.

Inevitably, debates like these dissolve into arguments about whether or not a given concept’s name conveys its meaning accurately and effectively. I am sympathetic to these arguments at the same time as I find them not especially useful.

Of course I wish that every term we used when talking about psychology or sociology or politics sounded exactly like the concept it describes. If I could wave a magic wand and rename a bunch of these terms, I would. I’d probably even rename “privilege” and “feminism” (though I don’t know to what). But guess what? Plenty of smart people would still disagree with what I chose, and the people who chose the original terms were smart and knowledgeable, too.

Besides, I don’t actually know how to make thousands of scholars, activists, and ordinary folks all over the world stop using words they’ve used for years and use new ones instead. Even if I did, I don’t think that would be the most productive use of my time.

A better use of our time is probably cultivating in people the sense of free-spirited curiosity that will encourage them to look up terms they don’t understand rather than assuming, as many people do, that feminists use those terms specifically in order to blame, guilt trip, or hurt them.

It may feel sometimes that recognizing and acknowledging a model’s weaknesses will make it seem weaker to ideological opponents, but I’d argue that we seem more consistent and intellectually honest if we do so. Yes, privilege may not explain why men are disadvantaged in ways no other dominant group is. Rape culture may not really explain why so many people don’t give a damn about consent whether the situation involves anything sexual or not or not. Gender performativity seems to shrug its shoulders where the experiences of trans people are concerned.

Acknowledging these flaws allows for better, more useful models–which will inevitably have flaws of their own. And we’ll critique them too, and start the cycle over again.

~~~

Edit: Awkwardly, I forgot to link to my relevant posts on strawmanning rape culture, parts one and two.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Mental Illness As A Metaphor

And speaking of the dilution of language, I’m going to talk a little about how the language of mental illness gets co-opted regularly.

Sometimes this is done completely innocently, as metaphor. “The weather’s really bipolar today.” “I’m kinda OCD about this, sorry.” “I’m so depressed about the Blackhawks losing!”

Sometimes it’s a little less innocent, as “humor” that implicitly degrades its target: “She’s, like, totally fucking schizo.” “Clinically Depressed Rob Pattinson Cavorts With Models in New Dior Ad.” (Jezebel has historically been pretty bad about using mental illness as a punchline.)

My usual objection to using mental illness terms in this way is that mentally ill people (who comprise a fourth of American adults) are likely to find them marginalizing and hurtful. It makes us feel like the potentially-fatal conditions we struggle with are just a joke to you. It’s not a nice feeling, and if you are a person who generally cares about your friends’ feelings, you should probably be aware of this.

But the dilution of mental illness terms might have another, more insidious effect, and that is changing our mental schemas of what mental illness looks like such that it’s less and less serious, and treating it accordingly.

As an example, I was recently posting on Facebook about the infuriating phenomenon in which someone discloses a phobia or trigger that they have to warn their friends, and then their friends proceed to try to deliberately trigger them. I literally watched it happen, and then I watched the friend post a new status about how people do this, and someone tried to do it again.

So my friends and I were discussing this and one of them mentioned that a possible factor (aside from the obvious douchebaggery) is the fact that many people now use “phobia” very colloquially, as in, “thing that makes me have a sort of uncomfortable but totally harmless reaction that would probably be amusing for you to see,” as when my little brother wants me to taste something totally gross (but safe and edible) or when my mom is like “ewwww look at all this dust that’s built up on your windowsill!”

I think my friend may be right. These words are used so casually that our conception of their meaning gradually shifts without our even noticing it. It’s like a boy-who-cried-wolf type of situation in that regard. If nine different friends joke to you about how they’re “sooooo OCD” because they like all their books organized just so on their shelf (a situation familiar to just about every bibliophile, honestly), then the tenth friend who comes to you and tells you that they have OCD is probably going to evoke that mental image, rather than one of someone who actually can’t stop obsessing over particular little things and carrying out rituals that interfere with that person’s normal functioning, perhaps to the point of triggering comorbid disorders like depression. This may be a person who washes their hands until they are raw and hurting, someone who has to flick the light switch on and off seven times every time they leave a room, or someone who has recurring, uncontrollable thoughts about hurting someone they love even though they have no actual desire to do that.

Well, that sounds a little different than insisting that your books be categorized by subject and then alphabetized by author, no?

Likewise, if your friends are constantly telling you they’re “depressed” because their team lost or because they got a bad grade, only to return to their normal, cheerful selves within a few hours, the next person who tells you that they are “depressed” might elicit a reaction of, “Come on, get over it! You’ll feel better if you go out with us.”

And so the meanings of words change.

But just because the people around you use mental illness terms in that diluted way doesn’t mean you should accept it. If you want to be an ally to those who struggle with mental illness, you should treat disclosures of mental illness seriously every time unless you’re absolutely certain that that’s not what the person is telling you. Feel free to ask for clarification.

I already shared this story as a comment on another post, but I’ll share it again because it’s applicable here. I once ran into an acquaintance and we chatted for a bit. I asked him what he’d been up to, and he said, “Just, you know, getting sober. I’m an alcoholic.” And I said, “Congratulations, good for you!” And he responded, “Oh, I’m not actually an alcoholic, I just meant that I’ve been drinking less. Haha, I forgot that you’re a psych major.”

The latter comment annoyed me because of its implication that I took his seeming disclosure of alcoholism seriously because I majored in psychology. That’s not why. I took it seriously because it sounded serious, because I want to support people who struggle with mental illnesses, and because I know what a big step it would’ve been for me to tell someone I didn’t know that well that I had started treatment for depression, back when I had it.

But other than my brief chagrin, there weren’t really any drawbacks or negative consequences for me in this situation. I faced no repercussions for taking him seriously. I undoubtedly came out of the situation looking like a decent person who cares about people, and he probably felt a little silly for flinging the term “alcoholic” around, but also reassured that if he ever did get diagnosed with a mental illness, I would take him seriously.

Although it may feel that way sometimes, you do not have a limited number of Real Mental Illness Points that you need to save up for responding to people who have a Real Mental Illness, and that you shouldn’t waste on those who are just using those terms metaphorically. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you that they have a phobia and you decide to refrain from trying to trigger that phobia is…exactly nothing. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you they’ve been feeling depressed lately and you say, “I’m so sorry to hear that, is there anything I can do to help?” is that they say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not like, depression or anything. I’ll feel better soon.”

That’s it!

And your taking them at their word sends a message to them that you believe that these words should be reserved for describing the illnesses they indicate, rather than being used as convenient metaphors. You’re helping to set a norm about how these words should be used.

Meanwhile, if you’re someone who uses mental illness terms to describe states of mind that you do not feel are mental illnesses, I’d encourage you to take advantage of the richness of the English language (or whichever language you speak, which I’m sure is also rich) and not do that. (Russian, for example, has some beautiful words for sadness. There’s the general sadness, or grust'; there’s a stronger version, toska; there’s a type of sadness that’s accompanied by an unwillingness or inability to do anything to improve one’s state of mind, unyniye; there’s a type of sadness that isn’t really directed at anything in particular and lies somewhere between grust’ and toska in severity, pechyal’; and there’s a type of sadness that includes grief, but also sadness at the loss of a treasured possession or an important opportunity, skor’b. And that’s a few. And don’t get me started on the Portugese word saudade.)

Note that I’m not including here folks who have diagnosed themselves with mental illnesses because they’re unable (or currently unwilling) to seek help from a professional. If you feel that you have the mental illness known as depression, then that word, I believe, is yours to use.

My point is only that sometimes misusing language has actual harms, and while language does evolve and change over time, we need words to describe mental illnesses. We can’t fight something that we can’t name, and we need to be able to fight depression and OCD without people thinking that we’re fighting feeling sorta down when your team loses or wanting to have all your books organized just so.

~~~

Related: Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister [...] U is for underage, N is for no consent [...] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.

~~~

*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not “Just Trolling”

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

CaitieCat, a frequent and awesome commenter around here, has a guest postI

It’s not news to any activist for any cause that people just love to whip out dictionary definitions as ostensibly authoritative guides to what words mean. Even so august a person as a fellow whose name may or may not rhyme with Shmichard Shmawkins has been known to whip out (pun intended) the old Oxford English when he doesn’t like someone else’s usage being different from the one he learned.

What’s disappointing about it is that it’s really just a common logical fallacy: the appeal to authority.

Now, I hear the defenders of that fellow who may or may not have that rhyming name leaping to their feet, cursing at me and their screens and the perfidy of anyone (especially a much-despiséd FEMINIST OMFFSM!) who’d dare to suggest the emperor would turn out to be naked commit a logical fallacy, but let me (the irony should delight you) tell you as a linguist why it’s exactly that.

First, it’s perhaps valuable to look at what a dictionary actually is. A dictionary is a compilation of language-objects (usually words, sometimes other related entities) – and this is the important bit – compiled by humans at a particular time.

Yes, they’re genuine experts in their field, and yes, they work by consensus, sort of. See, they only work by consensus within the field of dictionary writers who use the same language variety as they do. We tend to view a dictionary as a collection of objective facts: word X means meaning Y (and possibly Z, J, F, and Q). In fact, though, any dictionary is bounded by several biases which we tend not to think about when citing them as major authorities.

First, it is bounded in time. The date of publication provides an absolute limit for when the meanings are considered definitely valid; for proof, consider trying to use Mr. Johnson’s original dictionary for your English assignment today. That we can see this in Mr. Johnson’s 1709 effort, but not in the 2000 Oxford Online, has to do with our monkey-brained habit of filtering out the everyday, in order to make best use of the meat-computer we come pre-installed with.The instant it is sent to print, a dictionary is already badly out of date: words can change their meaning significantly in a very short time, as the quill flies/pixel pulses.

The filters have to do with more than time, though. There is also to be considered the makeup of the editorial board – does it accurately reflect the state of the whole of English, with different sociolects, dialects, jargons, cants, argots? There is a known demographic issue in academia generally, as well as most parts of academia, for the majority of tenured positions currently to be held by white able-bodied middle- or upper-class cis men. Are they always going to catch all possible meanings of a given word, all the nuances, when they aren’t users of a given word themselves? More diversity in such an endeavour would be evidently useful in making the dictionary more accurately reflect the true state of the language, if that were a goal of the project. It’s not: the OED is an attempt at defining what the prestige version of the language is.

Consider the privilege in dictionary-making accorded to written (i.e., “documentable”) usages, and in fact only certain types of documentable usages, which predominantly exclude those who stand outside the power-structure in today’s society. Emails between people, chat usage, comic books, zines, samizdat generally, erotic fiction/pornography, fan fiction, maledicta, rap lyrics, acronyms, and languages for the Deaf, among many other types of language usage, tend to be recorded only in the most conservative ways, and often ignored entirely, dismissed as vulgar ephemera, unworthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of English Wordhood.

Verbal usages are ignored almost entirely, as being “undocumentable”. Yet written language is only ever at its very best a vague approximation of the true richness and beauty of the spoken/signed language; great numbers of expressions and words will never make it into any dictionary, despite their usage in the millions of times daily all over the world, because they’re never written down in “acceptable” documentation. And yet we’re accumulating a humanity-wide store of thousands of hours of video of native and non-native speakers using their languages every day; there’s no particular reason to privilege written communication over spoken any more, now that the data are more readily available. Yes, it would cause a lot more work, but that’s only because we’ve only been doing half the job up til now, not a good argument for not doing it.

The primary problem, of course, is that these nominally objective (but in actuality, wildly subjective) works are cited as prescriptive authorities: they purport to describe the language as it ought to be spoken. I’m hoping that with the paragraphs above, I don’t need to describe the ways in which that view of language is of a tiny window on a huge, living phenomenon: it’s like carefully describing every pitch and swing of a baseball at-bat, and claiming that only that one at-bat, by one player, at one time, counts as a real at-bat, and that all at-bats are like that one, or aren’t real at-bats at all1.

There are real and invisible-to-us biases we all bear, having been raised in societies which are basically giant machines for inculcating invisible-to-us bias: the privilege of having a background such that one speaks the very high-prestige Received Pronunciation (the so-called “Queen’s English”) might lead one to assume that, since the OED agrees exactly with one’s internal definitions, then it must necessarily be a valid and unshakeable authority. Call it the oligoanthropic principle: “all the highly-educated Oxbridge graduates I know agree with the OED, and nobody I consider important disagrees, therefore it is an inerrant objective compilation of facts.”

But this requires not noticing that there are a lot of people in the world speaking English as their main language, and every single one of them has as much claim to say that their version is “the real one” as any Oxbridge-trained-mouthful-of-marbles has.

Like any compilation of subjective human knowledge, then, a dictionary definition is a poor premise to base an argument upon: it is too easily falsified by the simple act of noting that there are a noticeable number of people in the world using those words differently. As a linguist, I lean naturally toward a descriptive approach to language: to me, language is what the people who speak it want it to be. Language changes, as we adapt it – like any tool, as the good tool-using primates we are – to the needs we’re facing with it today. Insistence on some apocryphal golden-age idea that a given dictionary definition is a universally valid, and objectively and eternally true, premise reveals only a weak ability to recognize the numerous bounds and biases which make it at best subjective, and at worst revealing only a small part of the meaning a given language-object might carry to other people.

And that means, I’m afraid, that showing that your dictionary has a famous person’s or institution’s name on it doesn’t make it any more important or objective an arbiter of language than any random two speakers of that dictionary’s language: thus, the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Sorry, rhymes-with-Shmawkins fans: the emperor’s butt’s hanging out2.

For the turquoise ungulate crowd:

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE DICTIONARIES THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE HOLY BOOKS THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

WHY DO WE REVERE ONE AND DENIGRATE THE OTHER?

1 Wow, that’s a crap analogy. Anyone got a better one?

2 Big thanks to Miri the Amazing Professional Fun-Ruiner of Awesomeness for the opportunity to guest-post. :)

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you've found this post through a racist hate forum, don't bother commenting. Your comment's going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here's the link in case you can't see this]

 

Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.