“I’m a strong woman and I don’t need help.”

A common argument against interventions that aim to decrease harassment and violence against women–conference harassment policies, stronger anti-bullying measures on social media, and so on–is made by women and goes something like this: “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need to have my hand held.” Sometimes this is served with a side of “You’re the real sexist if you think that women are weak enough to need this.”

There are a lot of false assumptions layered in these statements. Namely:

1. That not needing certain protective measures makes you “strong” relative to others.

According to the fundamental attribution error, people tend to overemphasize the role of others’ internal characteristics and underemphasize the role of the situation they are in when trying to explain others’ behavior. In this case, many people observe others asking for harassment policies, trigger warnings, and the like, and attribute this to those individuals’ supposed “weakness” rather than to situational factors.

This discourse of “strength” when it comes to harassment and bullying troubles me. What I’ve generally found is that an individual’s ability to “deal with” harassment and abuse has less to do with how “strong” they are and more to do with other factors: social support, personal history of victimization, and feeling otherwise safe in the current environment, for instance.

Further, one’s likelihood of experiencing harassment and abuse in the first place has less to do with how “strong” they actually are, and more to do with how they are perceived by others. While individual factors have some impact on that, so do social categories that people use to think about others. Women with disabilities are extremely likely to be sexually abused because others perceive them as unable to speak up or get help, and because they perceive everyone else as unwilling to believe the testimony of a woman with a disability. Sadly, the latter is often true.

Therefore, feeling able to handle contingencies like sexual assault and harassment on your own, without help, is often more an indicator of privilege than superior personal traits. It certainly is for me. Part of having privilege is having difficulty seeing how other people may not have the same opportunities or experiences as you, for reasons that are not their fault.

2. That recognizing that some people(/women) need protective measures is bigoted(/sexist).

This is the gender version of another of my favorite bad arguments, If You Notice Race Then You’re The Real Racist. No, Real Racists (insofar as there is such a thing) are people who have managed to convince themselves that they “don’t see race” while continuing to judge and discriminate on the basis of it.

In the real world, there is sexual harassment and assault. In the contexts that we’re discussing, such as conferences and college campuses, sexual harassment and assault are most commonly perpetrated by men against women. Although harassment policies, anti-bullying measures on social media, and other initiatives of that sort have the potential to help anyone regardless of gender, most people correctly note that the initiatives are being created with female victims in mind–because that’s the majority, and because the loudest voices in anti-sexual violence advocacy tend to be women.

Noticing reality is not bigoted in and of itself. (But it’s possible to discuss reality in a bigoted way, obviously. For instance: “Women are the majority of sexual assault victims because men are slavering beasts” or “There tends to be more violence in neighborhoods where the residents are predominantly Black because Black people are more violent.”) If it is true that women are the majority of sexual harassment victims–and, according to current research, it seems to be–then it makes sense to be concerned with reducing sexual harassment against women.

But as I mentioned, such protective measures are useful to anyone who experiences harassment or assault, regardless of gender. When you say that such measures are by default sexist against women, you are assuming that all potential victims are female, and ignoring all the ones who are not. Although I do so hate to play “You’re The Real _____,” it is actually quite sexist to assume that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment or assault, and quite cissexist to assume that non-female, non-male people don’t even exist, as victims or otherwise.

3. That “strength,” whatever that is, is a quality that everyone ought to have, regardless of personal circumstance, and having it makes you clearly superior to those who don’t.

This is probably the main reason this response arises. A lot of people feel good about themselves when they position themselves as strong and independent and maybe a little bit better than those who can’t “take care of themselves.” In this way, the “I’m a strong woman” narrative is actually sort of a reasonable response to sexism. When you’ve been told implicitly and explicitly your entire life that you’re weak because of your gender, why not reimagine yourself as strong? Stronger, perhaps, than other women?

But when you say, “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this,” what does that say about the women who are not “strong,” who do not consider themselves “strong,” who cannot be “strong” in the ways that you are referring to?

I was originally inspired to write this post after a discussion on my Facebook about an article that I posted about interaction badges. This is a measure implemented at some conferences for Autistic people to help them set boundaries around social interaction. Red badges mean, “Do not initiate interaction with me”; yellow badges mean, “Only initiate interaction with me if we know each other”; and green badges mean, “I would like to talk but have trouble initiating; please initiate with me.” The badges are very useful for people who sometimes have trouble reading subtle social cues from others or sending such cues themselves, which describes many people on the autism spectrum.

I posted about this idea and said that it would be a cool thing to implement at the conferences I go to–not just because plenty of ASD folks attend these conferences too, but because it would be helpful for lots of people neurotypical and otherwise. Predictably, someone said that they’re a “strong woman” and they don’t need this and so on. A friend of mine responded that, well, some of us aren’t strong, and some can’t set boundaries, and why do these people deserve to feel uncomfortable or even unsafe just because they don’t have the capability to be “strong” in this way? How is that fair at all?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons someone might temporarily or permanently lack the ability to assertively set boundaries. People with autism sometimes experience selective mutism, which means they cannot speak. People with social anxiety or similar conditions might panic and be unable to relax and find the words they need. In more extreme situations, sexual assault victims often experience a sort of paralysis that prevents them from being able to speak up and say “no.” This is a documented effect.

Setting boundaries is often exhausting, and different people have different amounts of energy (or spoons, if you prefer that metaphor) to do it. If colored badges make a space more accessible, why not? If you personally don’t need it, who cares?

4. That these protective measures are being implemented with the assumption that everyone needs them.

Actually, most people do not get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere. Some of the people who do get harassed and assaulted at conferences or elsewhere will have ways to cope and deal with that on their own, without using the resources made available to them by that space. When I was assaulted in college, I decided not to report it or utilize any campus resources for survivors because I didn’t feel that I needed them. When I was harassed at conferences, I decided not to let the organizers know, because I preferred to deal with it in other ways. To the best of my recollection, I have never used any formal procedure for dealing with harassment or assault, for my own personal reasons.

So, for various reasons, you may not need to use a protective measure in a given space. That’s great! Nobody implied that you, personally, need this measure. If you don’t end up experiencing harassment or assault, that’s obviously good. If you do, but you’re comfortable handling harassment or assault on your own, then you don’t need to avail yourself of the measures in place to help survivors. But not everyone is, for more reasons than I’m able to list.

This is why “I’m a strong woman and I don’t need this” ultimately falls so flat for me as an argument for or against anything. Claiming that harassment policies are useless because you don’t personally need them is no more sensible than claiming that a restaurant should not have vegan options because you’re not personally a vegan. And claiming that harassment policies somehow imply that all women (yourself included) are weak and need protecting is no more sensible than claiming that the mere presence of an elevator is accusing you of laziness.

There are people who sometimes need harassment policies and there are people who sometimes (or always) need elevators. If you don’t, ignore it and go about your business.

Or, better yet, understand that others may need help that you do not, and support them in their effort to get it.

~~~

I’ve previously written some other stuff related to this argument:

Also of relevance is the fact that the “strong woman” narrative has particular meaning and significance for women of color.

18 Things Mark Saunders Seems To Not Understand (Because, Male Privilege)

I have a response up at the Daily Dot to the latest ridiculous assertion that “female privilege” exists:

Mark Saunders’ recent Thought Catalog piece, “18 Things Females Seem To Not Understand (Because, Female Privilege),” announces its ignorance right from the title. The only people who still call women “females” are scientists, sexists, and Ferengi. (I suppose these three groups may overlap somewhat.)But while it’s easy to poke fun at the ridiculous title, it’s a little harder (though not by much) to show how wrong Saunders is.

Consider the first item on the list:

“1. Female privilege is being able to walk down the street at night without people crossing the street because they’re automatically afraid of you.”

It takes such incredible chutzpah to turn yourself into the victim in that situation. Women are afraid of men because we’re taught to, because we’re blamed for anything that happens when we’re not afraid enough, and because of personal experience. Saunders’ male privilege means he’s never had to feel what that’s like, and he should be grateful. The most visceral fear of my life has been when I’ve been walking down a dark street alone and heard footsteps behind me, knowing that the first question I’d be asked if the worst thing imaginable happened would be, “Well, what the hell were you doing out there alone?”

It is not a privilege to live in constant fear of rape and death.

Keep reading here.

Relatedly, there’s this Storify of a Twitter rant I directed at Thought Catalog in response to the piece.

It’s Okay Not To Disagree With Your Friends About Politics

I’ve seen a lot of articles and discussions lately on the theme of “why you should have friends who disagree with you [about politics].” Given how uncritically this view is often presented, I want to complicate it a little. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have friends who disagree with you about politics, or that having friends who disagree with you about politics is bador that there no benefits to be had from having friends who disagree with you about politics, or that you should never expose yourself to views with which you disagree.

My point is just this:

  • Having politically divergent friends is not necessarily superior to not having politically divergent friends;
  • Having politically divergent friends does not necessarily make you superior to those who do not have politically divergent friends;
  • There are legitimate reasons why someone might choose not to have politically divergent friends;
  • There are other ways to reap the benefits of having politically divergent friends.

The reason I’m trying to make these points so carefully is because anytime I attempt to discuss this without several metric fucktons of nuance, folks immediately take my points to their most extreme possible conclusion and start being all like “OH SO YOU THINK THERE’S NO REASON TO EVEN ENGAGE WITH VIEWS WITH WHICH YOU DISAGREE AND IT’S BETTER TO JUST STAY IN YOUR OWN LITTLE BUBBLE HUH blah blah groupthink blah circle jerk blah blah echo chamber.”

*sigh* No.

When a position gets strawmanned so vigorously every time it’s brought up, I know it’s time to give it a proper defense.

In the interest of being fair, I understand where this is coming from. It is true that people tend to avoid evidence that goes against their beliefs and seek out evidence that confirms their beliefs. It is true that people sometimes stereotype and pigeonhole those that disagree with them rather than actually listening to them to see how they justify their own views. It is true that some people think you’d have to be “crazy” or “evil” or “stupid” (meaningless words, by the way, all of them) to hold some belief they disagree with. It is true that it is “easier” not to engage with views you disagree with than to engage with them.

I just don’t think that ameliorating this requires being “friends” with people you strongly disagree with (in my case, conservatives, libertarians, and so on).

First of all, perhaps we are disagreeing on the definition of “friend.” To me, a friend is a person with whom I share parts of myself that I would not share with a coworker, a classmate, a person I just met at a party, a stranger on the subway, a professor, or even a family member. My relationships with my friends aren’t purely dispassionate exchanges of ideas; they involve emotional intimacy and disclosure.

Someone with whom I’m friends on Facebook may also be my friend, but they may only be a “Facebook friend” if they are not someone with whom I’m interested or comfortable sharing very personal things. (I get pretty personal on my Facebook, but my definition of “personal” differs from most people’s.)

There is no need to be “friends” with someone (by my definition) to discuss politics with them and learn from their differing perspective. I can get that from a class discussion or from reading a blog post or newspaper editorial or from having them in my family or from getting into a conversation at a party or any number of ways that do not involve me making myself emotionally vulnerable to people who are probably going to hurt me. I engage with diverging views all the time. I just don’t need to do it while hanging out with friends or checking my Facebook.

Second, people have different goals for their friendships. If one of the main things you get out of friendship is exposure to ideas you disagree with, then it’s easy to strawman people who don’t want to do that as “not wanting to be exposed to ideas they disagree with.” If one of the main things you get out of friendship is emotional support (like me), then it’s easy to feel like we’re being demanded to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule from conservative “friends” who think we’re going to hell or deserved to get sexually assaulted or should not have full human rights.

Furthermore, to those of us who don’t view friendship primarily as a way to be exposed to ideas we disagree with, it can feel very odd to be told that we “ought” to make friends with people we disagree with in order to “learn from them.” My friend Wes says, “I feel like articles like this view people as plot devices or vehicles for self-reflection. I have friends because I enjoy interacting with them, not because I think that interacting with them is good for me.” While some would argue that friendship is a transaction in any case, I personally feel gross conceptualizing it that way, and even if I didn’t, you still have to agree on what exactly is being transacted. If someone thinks they’re providing me with emotional support and hoping to get the same in return, it would probably be a little hurtful to realize I’m actually treating them as an anthropological experiment so that I can learn How Conservatives Live.

Just as people can have different goals for friendship, they can have different goals for social media. Progressives in particular often get criticized for “shutting down” disagreement on our Facebooks, because we’ve decided that we don’t care to see certain things on our pages. This, again, is taken as evidence that we don’t want to “engage” with dissenting viewpoints.

But I do want to engage with dissenting viewpoints. I’ve simply decided that my Facebook will not be the place where I do that. My Facebook will be a safe space where I go to get support, bounce ideas around with people who can help me develop them, share updates about my day-to-day life, and keep up to date with what my friends are doing. It is not Miri’s Free-For-All Political Argument Arena. That I do not want a barrage of notifications from people yelling at me every time I open Facebook (and nor do I want the panic that inevitably ensues) should not be taken as an indicator of my supposed unwillingness to “consider alternate views.”

Third, not all disagreement is made equal. For instance, I am not interested in engaging with people who ignore empirical reality, whether they do that in the form of denying climate change, insisting that racism is over, or claiming that you can “snap out of” mental illness. There is nothing to be gained from listening to someone call the sky green and the grass blue over and over.

I am also not interested in engaging with people whose sole justifications for their views are religion. You believe abortion is a sin against god. I believe there is no god and no sin. Neither of us is going to convince the other, and I’ve heard this argument a hundred times and will not gain anything from hearing it again.

The above views are things I can just as easily read about online or in books or newspapers. There is no need to waste my own or another person’s time hashing them out in real time.

Other disagreements are productive and interesting to hash out with people. I have argued about human rights organizations, how do donate to charity, affirmative action, whether or not Dan Savage sucks, whether or not polyamory can work, the Israel-Palestine situation, Occupy Wall Street, unpaid internships, why there aren’t more women and minorities in the tech sector, and plenty of other things, either in person or online. Some of the people in some of these debates were conservatives and libertarians, others were liberals or progressive. In any case, diverging views were exchanged and considered.

Fourth, even disagreements about the same issues can read very differently to the same people. For instance, I’m sure progressive dudes can have nice, dispassionate discussions about abortion rights with conservative dudes, because hey, no skin off their backs (and then they can turn around and demand that women do the same, you know, to avoid “groupthink”). Likewise, there’s probably a reason I included affirmative action in that list of things I can debate productively. It doesn’t affect me personally. When someone says they oppose affirmative action, that does not feel like an attack on me personally.

(It’s important to note, here, that just because you don’t mean for your Unbiased Objective Opinion to feel like an attack to someone else doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. Recognizing the disparity between intentions and outcomes is integral to debating sensitively and successfully)

Most people will not be interested in entertaining debates that feel like attacks on who they are, especially on aspects of their identity that they cannot (and, generally, don’t want to) change.

However, I suspect that the challenge isn’t convincing people that it’s okay not to do things that make you feel bad, but convincing them that some things that do not make them feel bad make others feel bad. If any of the people preaching the virtues of having politically divergent friends ever experienced the way I feel when yet another dude sneers at me about false rape accusations or asks me how I can tolerate living in “that neighborhood” with all of “those people,” they would probably stop preaching it.

But some people never experience that feeling either because they don’t experience much marginalization or because their brains just work differently (I have many extremely patient female, LGBTQ, PoC, and/or disabled friends who don’t mind engaging with those who are prejudiced against them). It is sometimes difficult for them to understand that others do experience that feeling (or even what that feeling is) and that that doesn’t make others “worse” than them somehow.

For what it’s worth, I’d be absolutely willing and interested in having conservative friends who want to just hang out and play games and explore New York together and leave my politics alone. I’ve had friends like that at college. But it rarely works because most conservatives who encounter my politics want to debate them, and I’m not interested in doing that with people I consider friends. My close relationships with people whose politics were very different from mine have relied on embracing our similarities and appreciating what we admire in each other, not on endlessly hashing out the same tired political arguments.

It’s easy to make statements like “everyone ought to have friends on the other side of the aisle” when you don’t consider that others might view friendships and political disagreements differently than you do. I want my friendships to be a refuge from the loneliness and cruelty of the rest of the world. That doesn’t make me “weaker” or “less open-minded” than you; it just means that I have different priorities. My priorities are shaped not only by the personality I was born with, but by the experiences I’ve had and the goals I’ve set for myself in my life.

If you enjoy political debates with friends, cool. If you don’t, cool. I want people to be open-minded and consider views they disagree with, but not at the cost of feeling accepted and supported by their friends. I want to challenge the idea that a person’s worth, intellectual capability, open-mindedness, or commitment to skeptical thinking can and should be judged by their willingness to have Dispassionate Debates with their friends about issues near and dear to their hearts.

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.

[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!).

Open Letter to the CFI Board of Directors

This was sent to the CFI Board of Directors today as they prepare to meet this week to discuss the controversy surrounding Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at the Women in Secularism conference. It was signed by 33 of the conference attendees. If you have something to say about this, the CFI Board of Directors can be reached via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net.

To the Board of Directors of the Center for Inquiry:

As attendees of the recent Women in Secularism conference, we are writing to express our disappointment with Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks and his subsequent behavior. We support the recent letter written and signed by thirteen of the conference speakers and would like to add our voices to theirs.

Dr. Lindsay’s comments about the misuse of the term “privilege” to “silence” men miss the point of the term. It is not that men must “shut up and listen” to women forever; it is that, historically, the voices of men have been heard the loudest, and perhaps it is time for them to make more of an effort to listen to the voices that have been drowned out.

Dr. Lindsay’s remarks were addressed to an audience of activists for women’s rights, both within the secular movement and beyond. Rather than allowing us to defend that activism, Lindsay chose to lecture us about “taking it too far” while betraying a serious misunderstanding of what it is we’re fighting for.

Dr. Lindsay spoke about the supposed silencing of men, but he did not speak about the silencing of women. The reason many of us attended this conference is because the position of women in secularism is currently a tenuous one. In response to their advocacy for increased inclusivity within the secular movement, women activists have been subject to a divisive campaign of bullying, harassment, and threats. Several prominent activists have dropped out of the movement or decreased their involvement in it due to this ongoing silencing campaign. But rather than expressing support for these activists, Lindsay cautioned us to avoid taking our activism too far and “silencing” men. In fact, during the conference, he chose to personally welcome one of the harassers who was in attendance.

To be clear, Dr. Lindsay is entitled to his opinions about feminism and the concept of privilege. But if he had concerns about these issues that he wished for the conference organizers and speakers to address, he could have done so before the conference and in private. His decision to do so during his opening remarks was particularly inappropriate given that merely weeks before, Dr. Lindsay used his position to advocate discussing objections privately and, of all things, listening more.

As secular activists, we welcome discussion about feminism and its role in the secular movement. But a condescending lecture is not a discussion, and the opening remarks of a conference are a time to welcome and thank participants, not to air grievances against them.

We are asking Dr. Lindsay to apologize in full for his behavior at the Women in Secularism conference. While we appreciate that he has apologized for his incendiary blog post about Rebecca Watson, we would like to see him acknowledge that his opening remarks were inappropriate given his position within CFI. In addition, we are asking Dr. Lindsay to make every reasonable effort to ensure that there will be a third Women in Secularism conference, because we believe that the secular movement cannot move forward without standing up for women’s rights.

Signed,

Miri Mogilevsky

PZ Myers

Nathan Hevenstone

Catherine Fiorello

Monica Beck

Nicole Harris

Stacy Kennedy

Mark Waddell

Mai Dao

Michael X

Corinne Zimmerman

Lotte Govaerts

Bogdan Cvetkovic

Virginia R. Brown

Shaun McGonigal

Jason Thibeault

A. L.

Kate Donovan

Andrew Tripp

Daniel Samuelson

Alexander Gonzalez

Ania Bula

Adam Lee

Steve Croker

Peggy Clancy

Yukimi

Caitlin Quinn

Zachariah Pidgeon

Xenologer

Alicia Kuhl-Paine

J. Bradley Emery

Amy Cook

~~~

If you’d like, feel free to send this letter to the CFI board in your own name, with or without modifications.

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.

 

 

 

“But I’m a man and I don’t feel like I have any privilege.”

Another one inspired by the comment thread of doom.

The hardest thing about explaining privilege to members of dominant groups is that, usually, the fact that you’re advantaged in certain ways doesn’t mean you’re not disadvantaged in many other ways. So when we’re talking about gender and a man is told that he’s privileged–or when we’re talking about race and a white person is told that they’re privileged, or whatever–their immediate response is often, “What privilege? Look at all the ways my life has been unfair!”

To be clear, this argument is not always made in good faith*. However, for the sake of this post, I’m going to pretend that it is, because there are important points to be made about this.

Privilege is best understood as a system of interacting benefits (or disadvantages). When people in a feminist space talk about “privilege,” they often just mean male privilege. All other things being equal–this is the important part–if you are a man, you are at an advantage relative to a woman.

Of course, that’s only useful theoretically. In practice, gender isn’t the only thing that matters. Race, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, (dis)ability, religion, skin color (within race), class, weight, attractiveness, immigration status–all these things make a difference. (This is what feminists refer to as “intersectionality.”)

Say you’re a man but you lack privilege in another area–say you’re a man of color. Are you more privileged than a white, upper-class, straight, able-bodied, Christian woman? Probably not. Are you more privileged than a lower-middle-class, queer Latina woman? Probably. And your being male is only one of many ways in which you are more privileged than this hypothetical woman.

Many men have trouble understanding or accepting the concept of privilege because they do not feel that they have much of it. On one hand, this is true–men can be poor, men can be disabled, men can be non-white, men can be queer. On the other hand, privilege often remains unchallenged because it is invisible. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you never (or almost never) get stopped by the cops for absolutely no reason, searched, and subjected to harsh questions. If you are a man of color, this is something that’s almost certainly happened to you, and a problem of which you are very much aware. Likewise, if you’re a man–unless you’re very visibly gender-nonconforming–you don’t have to worry every time you go out alone at night that someone will harass you, that someone will rub up against you on the subway platform and make disgusting sounds, that someone will follow you down the street yelling at you to come back to him. All of these things have happened to me and most other women.

But this probably isn’t something you think about all the time. It’s natural that you’d think more about the ways your life can be challenging, not about how lucky you are to not get followed down the street by strange men all the time. The injustices in your life are probably more salient to you than all the myriad ways in which things work as they should. So it would make sense that, overall, you feel like you lack privilege rather than feeling like you have it.

Another way of looking at it is that a man can very much have a really difficult life that’s almost devoid of any privileges. But if, hypothetically, this same man with these same circumstances had instead been born a woman, her life would be even more difficult and even more devoid of privilege.

This is why privilege is best used as a theoretical concept and not taken too literally. It’s impossible to “measure” it. It’s impossible to know, for instance, whether a hypothetical man necessarily has more total privilege than me, or whether I have more than him.

This is also why, when discussing privilege with folks who aren’t very familiar with intersectionality, it’s best to be as specific as possible. “You just don’t get this because you’re privileged” or “Check your privilege” is never going to work if the person you’re talking to actually lacks privilege along every axis other than the one you’re talking about (well, or if they don’t know what the hell privilege even means). If I–a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman–yell at a poor, queer man of color to “check his privilege” because he said something sexist, he would (and should) laugh in my face. Because he’ll probably immediately think of his class, race, and sexual orientation and wonder how, exactly, he’s so privileged.

When this comes up, it’s vital to remind people that the disadvantages they face in life are not a product of the fact that they’re male (or white, or whatever). If I tell you that being a woman means I have to worry about people harassing me on the street and you tell me that, well, being a queer man means you get harassed on the street too, you’re missing the point a little. It’s not being a man that gets you harassed. It’s being queer, because we have a society that’s unjust toward queer people.

Some have tried to get around this hurdle when educating about privilege by creating metaphors in which you get a certain number of “points” in different domains. If you’re white, you get more “points” than if you’re not white. If you’re male, you get more points than if you’re not male. If you’re straight…you get the idea. Then the total points you have is your privilege, and you can see that getting few points in one category doesn’t mean you can’t get many points in another category. (John Scalzi made a similar metaphor brilliantly here.)

Such metaphors are fraught with complications (should being male give you more points than being white?), they’re useful for showing that you can’t just look at one axis. It’s not just about being male. It’s not just about being white. It’s everything.

Privilege is a theory, a framework that can be used to explain how our social world works. Like all theories, it has weaknesses and blind spots. Some try to make up for these by continually inventing new forms of privilege–vanilla privilege and couple privilege are a few that I’ve heard relatively recently–but in reality, the problem with taking privilege too literally is that there are just too damn many variables that shape our circumstances and what we are able to achieve. It is completely possible to be a straight white cis able-bodied middle-class Christian mentally/physically healthy English-speaking American plain-ol-vanilla-white-bread man and still have your life completely destroyed and fucked over by circumstances beyond your control.

That does not mean that you do not have privilege.

All it means is that privilege is just a theory, useful for explaining many but not all things, and that you, my friend, were really unlucky and that legitimately sucks.

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*Examples: “Male privilege? But women never answer my OkCupid messages!” and “White privilege? But [insert story about how you got rejected from a job/college because some Totally Unqualified Black Person got it instead].”

On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome

Whenever women are discussing street harassment and what causes it and how to prevent it, a man inevitably comes along to inform us that, actually, our feelings about harassment are Wrong because he, personally, would just love it if women catcalled him on the street or came up and slapped his ass without consent.

There are lots of things wrong here.

1. This is male privilege.

It’s a perfect example of it, in fact. Having privilege isn’t a “bad” thing, and it doesn’t mean you should have to lose that privilege–rather, it means the rest of society should gain it. In this case, that privilege is being able to walk down the street without being subjected to sexualized attention, and that privilege is one men have and women do not, in our society. (Of course, men are more likely than women to face other kinds of unwanted attention on the streets, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

When you say that you would “love” it if women catcalled you, you are speaking from a place of privilege because catcalling isn’t something you ever have to deal with. The only reason you are even able to imagine enjoying it because you’ve never experienced it.

Some men do experience sexual harassment from women or other men. But these generally aren’t the men butting into our conversations and telling us that we should take harassment as a compliment, because they understand what it’s actually like.

2. Harassment means you don’t want it.

Why is this so hard to understand? If you want sexual attention, then it’s not harassment or assault. It’s flirting or sex. If you want to be catcalled, then it won’t feel like harassment to you. When you make a sexual comment towards someone without their consent, you are running a huge risk of harassing them, but if it turns out that they wanted to hear that comment, they’re probably not going to complain.

But of course, none of us are mindreaders, or else men who harass women on the street would probably realize that they don’t want it in the least.

3. And anyway, your penis is not the arbiter of everyone’s sexuality.

As in, I don’t really care what you like. Just because you may like getting catcalled without your consent doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like it too, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to do it to others. It’s just like I wrote about people who prefer not to be asked for consent during sex–that’s totally cool. But you cannot assume that others feel the same way you do.

If being catcalled in public is your thing (which, as I’ll explain, I kind of doubt, anyway), you’ll need to find a way to arrange that without advocating that everyone should be okay with catcalling. Just like if you get off on emulating rape, you’ll need to find a consenting partner to do that with rather than suggesting that everyone should be okay with getting raped because that’s what your penis likes.

4. Harassment is never a one-time thing, and that changes everything.

If you’ve never gotten catcalled (and likely never will), it may indeed seem like it’ll be pleasant and flattering. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking something similar when I was a teenager–old enough to want sexual attention, but too young to really get it (not to mention living in a quiet suburb rather than a big city).

The first time a man ever made a comment to me on the street, it was a bit weird but also kind of cool. I still remember it–I had just graduated from high school and was taking a trip to Chicago alone for the first time. I was in the Loop and there was a group of guys. One of them said, “Hey! You look good.” That was it. Fairly harmless as catcalling goes.

The second or third time, which I don’t remember, probably went much the same way, and I didn’t mind it much. But it’s never just a few times. It’s dozens, hundreds of times over a lifetime. It’s when you wear a cute dress. It’s when you wear sweats. It’s when you’re excitedly on your way to a date. it’s when you’re dragging yourself home after an exhausting day at work. It’s when you’re taking a run. It’s when you’re carrying groceries. It’s all. The. Fucking. Time.

And that, as this blogger explains beautifully, makes all the difference.

5. It’s also different when you’ve been a victim of sexual violence.

My guess is that men who say these things have not, and this is another type of privilege at play. If you’ve never experienced sexual violence, unwanted come-ons will feel different to you than they will to someone who has. To survivors of sexual violence, street harassment can be anything from a mildly uncomfortable reminder of a past experience to an actual trigger for a panic attack, depressive episode, or flashback.

And here’s the thing–if you haven’t had that experience, you cannot know what it’s like to be triggered or reminded of it. You just can’t. But luckily, you don’t need to understand it to respect those who do know. You just have to shut up for a change, and listen.

6. Who, exactly, would you want to be catcalled by?

My guess is that when you imagine getting catcalled, you’re imagining a gorgeous woman doing it. What about an ugly woman? A fat woman? A gay man? In my experience, the men who go around whining that nobody ever catcalls them on the street are the same ones who get horrified when someone they don’t find desirable pays them any attention.

Also, men who are perceived as gay are often bullied or assaulted for even seeming like they’re coming on to straight men. Apparently it’s not such a “compliment” anymore when it’s coming from someone you’re prejudiced against.

And remember that the whole problem with non-consensual interaction is that you don’t get to choose who interacts with you.

7. Gender matters.

Although men are not immune to violence (sexual or otherwise, from women or from other men), the dynamics are demonstrably different because most men are stronger than most women. If you’re a man walking down the street and a woman starts harassing you, you generally don’t have to worry that she’ll brutally rape and attack you if you try to get her to stop (TW for that link).

For women, the awfulness of street harassment isn’t just what it actually is, but also in what it could become. It could just be an offhand comment, or it could lead to stalking, groping, assault, mugging, or murder. You may think that you’re a perfectly nice guy who’d never actually hurt anyone as you stand there and whistle at a woman, but she doesn’t know that, and therein lies the horror of it.

The humiliation makes it even worse. When a man catcalls me, I can feel the eyes of the passerby on me and I know what they’re thinking: She shouldn’t have dressed like a slut. She shouldn’t be here alone this late at night. I wonder what she did to get his attention. 

When women come on to men, on the other hand, this generally reflects well on the men because getting attention from women is seen as an accomplishment, not a failure to stay modest and unobtrusive enough.

On the other hand, though, this mindset also contributes to the huge problem of sexual assault not being taken seriously when men are the victims, which brings me right to my final point.

8. Comments like these erase male victims.

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll make in this entire piece: men who say things like this are effectively erasing the experiences of male victims of sexual harassment and assault. Believe it or not, many (if not most) men don’t actually enjoy it when women pay them unwanted sexual attention, “unwanted” being the key word.

A male friend of mine mentioned that whenever a guy points out that, no, he does not want to be harassed by women on the street, he gets ridiculed by other men. That, right there, is why it’s so difficult for men to admit being harassed or assaulted, and why male victims are marginalized. Male rape is still largely considered either impossible, “not a big deal,” or, as I’m discussing in an upcoming post, simply hilarious. I don’t know how else to say it: this is a fucking problem.

Anyway, I’m at 1,400 words now, so this seems as good a time as any to stop. Here’s the tl;dr version for people who minimize the problem of street harassment: check your privilege, put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and consider the fact that the world doesn’t fucking revolve around you.

[storytime] These Streets Are Mine: On Street Harassment

I got sexually harassed today.

Actually, it happens all the time. Like, almost every time I venture out on the city streets for longer than ten minutes. It’s kinda like when you have to drive in the city and you can never find a good parking spot, or when you’re stuck behind a group of sluggish tourists on the street.

You know, annoying stuff that happens when you live in the city.

Except this is different. Because this only affects people who are (or appear to be) women, and because this is a conscious, purposeful attempt to make us feel unsafe and violated. It is not a compliment. It is not “boys being boys.” It is harassment.

This time, I’m on a dark El platform at 10 PM. I’d just been out with a friend and had a great time. I’m wearing a nice dress, same one I wore to work, not that it’s any of your business. An old man calls something to me from 10 yards away; I ignore him.

A few minutes later he ambles over, passes in front of me so close as to brush against me, and says, “Mhm.”

He stands on the other side of me until the train comes and gets into the same car as me. He doesn’t get a seat near me because there are too many people, but I see him looking over.

I slowly reach into my bag and pull out my pepper spray, letting it dangle from my fingers. And I look up with a face of stone, and he knows that I know what he did.

I am attractive. You can think I’m vain for saying that, but I don’t really care what you think. It’s hard not to know you’re attractive when you’ve been told from birth. My parents always say, “You’re so beautiful, you can get any guy you want if you just stop being in such a bad mood all the time.” They say, “Make sure you have a guy walk you home.” They say, “Try to find a job where your boss is a man. It’ll be easier that way.”

In the past, when I had friends who didn’t get it, they did it too. They thought I couldn’t possibly have any trouble in my love life. They thought I couldn’t possibly have a problem with the number on the scale.

Beauty carries a lot of privilege in our society–and, really, in any human society, although standards of beauty vary. But, unlike most kinds of societal privilege, this one comes at a cost. I’m not particularly interested in debating who has it worse, but suffice it to say that I would rather not have strange men brushing up against me when I’m trying to take the train home at night.

And no. I will not demand that my male friends take me home; that’s not their job. I will not dress in ugly, baggy clothing. I will not stop leaving my apartment in the evenings. I will not stop taking public transportation. I will not stop walking down these streets, because these streets are mine.

I’m not afraid. Not because I have no reason to be, but because I couldn’t keep living if I were. I can’t keep crossing the street every time I see a man. I can’t keep wincing visibly every time I hear their slurred come-ons. I can’t keep tugging at my clothes in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how to cover up what I never chose to have in the first place.

I’m not afraid. I’m angry.

A while back, the writer Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year and a half and wrote about her experience. This is what she said about the first time she went out in drag:

I had lived in that neighbourhood for years, walking its streets, where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren’t pretty. But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly, and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

They can choose to look away from women, too. But our society teaches them that women are there for their eyes.

There are things I can do. And I’m not talking about the “don’t go out alone” types of things. I find that anger deters these pathetic men more than anything else. They don’t want a woman who’s going to cause trouble, who’s going to whip around and snarl, hit, tell them to fuck off. They don’t want a woman sitting straight up, glaring, with a can of pepper spray ready in her hand.

Nine of out ten of them will stop at that.

As for the other one, well, I suppose that’s a risk I have to take if I’m going to fight for my right to walk down the fucking street.

Just like any man can do.

For more information: Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment