Me and my #MaleTears: Facing the consequences of ironic hatred

I used to work in a feminist bookshop – it was much like any other bookshop, except it didn’t have a humour section.

That gem is perhaps the best example I know of the self-armouring joke. It plays on a cruel and unfair stereotype, but those whom it targets are left defenseless, unable to criticise the joke because to do so would validate it.

It sprang to mind when reading a paragraph in Amanda Hess’s piece in Slate which celebrates ‘ironic misandry’ as a weapon in the arsenal of modern feminism. [Read more...]

How I learned to stop worrying and love their #ListeningToMenFace

Poehler Fey

There was a moment when I was browsing the #ListeningToMenFace tweets over the weekend when I wondered whether it might be considered genuinely harmful.

If you’re a twit-refusenik or somehow missed it, this was a hashtag under which women, mostly but not entirely from feminist corners, posted photos, animated gifs of the faces they make when men talk to them. Some were posed selfies, most were celebrity grabs.

After laughing my way through the first few dozen entries I saw, the sheer weight of numbers began to wear me down. Had it become, I asked myself, something of a misandrist parade? An opportunity for women not just to strike back against the prevailing winds of patriarchal social mores but to gratuitously elevate a one finger salute to half the population of the planet?

I scratched my chin, cocked my head in a moment’s contemplation, then came to the following conclusion: “Ally…. get a grip and stop being such a butthurt bucket of toss.”

So yes, we can add the #ListeningToMenFace to the ever lengthening list of Fucks I Could Not Give. The key flash of realisation for me was that if so many women could identify with the joke and feel motivated enough to join in, there was a real and genuine itch there which needed to be scratched. And truth be told, looking at the photos, the videos and the gifs, a pretty hefty hunk of them looked rather familiar. Not only can I conclude that a lot of different women have shown me their #ListeningToMenFace over the years, I can add that on most occasions it was probably entirely deserved.

We live in a society where relationships between men and women – whether intimate, emotional, social or economic – are governed by myriad expectations, assumptions, habituations and complex etiquette. This means that, to some degree, most of us talk slightly differently to people of a different gender. Many of us might like to to think that we are immune to such habits. Most of us would be wrong, I think, but even if it were true, we all still interpret the other person’s words and behaviour through a lens that is coloured by their gender.

If we ever build a society free of restrictive gender norms, we might find ourselves in a position where the notion of a #ListeningToMenFace or indeed a #ListeningToWomenFace has no purchase or meaning, no humorous or satirical kick. As it is, I get why #ListeningToMenFace is funny. I also get why a #ListeningToWomenFace tag can be funny too, and if anyone expects me to argue it is different when men do these things about women because power relations blah blah, then sorry – a bit of gentle, impertinent ribbing of women by men is similarly lodged in the fattening file of Fucks I Could Not Give.

And of course it didn’t take long for the first such tweets to appear. The one truly saddening and worrying thing about this minor kerfuffle is that this evening when I looked, the top image under #ListeningToMenFace was this endearing photo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (above), the top image under #ListeningToWomenFace was the serial killer Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. A bit of gentle ribbing was answered by a reminder of brutal misogynistic violence. As the meme would have it, this is why we can’t have nice things.

I will not, however, allow that kind of unpleasantness to spoil anyone’s fun. As an original contribution to the #ListeningToMenFace game, I must pay tribute to my favourite fictional woman of recent years – Chloe O’Brian from 24. Without wishing to downplay her vital role in preventing umpteen biological weapons attacks and nuclear explosions, or to ignore her technical brilliance, but for all that her true genius is in pulling a #ListeningToMenFace. I mean, look.

chloe_listening

 

And it wouldn’t be right to leave you without my own #ListeningToWomenFace. I did contemplate a gif from Scanners of that dude’s head exploding, but while I have had a few days like that lately, it really wouldn’t be accurate. The truth of my #ListeningToWomenFace is probably something like this:

ghostbuster

 

 

How to confuse an American: The politics of the c-word

In my last blog, I noted in passing that I am prone to using very offensive language, including the word ‘cunt.’ I think it was coincidence, but around the same time Ophelia blogged on that very topic, and inadvertently created a perfect case study of the phenomenon I was discussing.

As PZ noted in a follow-up called ‘How to drive a Brit crazy’, anyone objecting to the use of that word is likely to reap a torrent of comments saying “it’s a perfectly acceptable word; everyone says it in England.”

I’ll return to the question of whether ‘everyone says it in England’ in a minute, but first let me observe that what PZ describes is a classic example of the “you shouldn’t be offended by that” fallacy. Irrespective of how the word is used in other cultures, to many people – and especially to most Americans – ‘cunt’ is a deeply offensive, sexist and misogynistic word. In truth I use it very rarely on the internet / social media, because I know there will be people reading who will be upset by it and I have no wish to hurt them. I quite consciously modify my language out of respect for the sensibilities of some people who might read my words. That just seems like the decent thing to do.

Occasionally I will weigh up that risk of offence against whatever point I wish to express by using it, and jump in with both feet. If someone objects, I may or may not apologise or regret my choice of word, but never would I tell someone that s/he is wrong to be offended. That would be outrageously presumptuous. The “But in England…” defence is indeed a pile of cack.

That said, the debate raises (or more accurately, misses) a point about the c-word that I find fascinating. In my experience, whenever foreigners, and especially Americans, fail to grasp a nuance of British habits, it is because they are almost entirely oblivious to the function and history of our class system, which runs like deep scars into every aspect of our society, our politics and – above all – our culture. The c-word is a quite splendid example of this in action.

It is simply not true that everyone in England says “cunt” all the time. It is not commonly considered sexist or misogynistic (note, I’m not saying it isn’t – I’m saying that’s not how it is considered) however it is undoubtedly considered exceptionally vulgar. Vulgarity in British culture is inextricably wrapped up with the performativity of class status.

It is not a huge exaggeration to say the debate over the c-word began at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For the next 400 years or so, English peasants spoke endless regional variations on middle English, (the language of Chaucer, most famously.) The ruling class (nobility) spoke Anglo-French. Over a couple of hundred years, roughly between the times of the Tudors and the Georgians, the English language began to standardise, and people learned to perform a place in the social hierarchy according to whether one’s vocabulary and vocal stylings leaned more to the Norman / Anglo-English or the older, more ‘vulgar’ Anglo-Saxon.

Before spelling was standardised, Chaucer had the freedom to improvise, and makes a rather clever visual pun by spelling the word cunt as ‘queynte’ – deliberately echoing the word ‘quaint’ meaning ‘a pleasing thing’ and he used it liberally and without any hint of embarrassment. By Shakespeare’s time, the bard was reduced to hinting at it like a naughty schoolboy – and he did, often.

However, there was no United Kingdom at the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare. The further you drifted from the Norman influence, the less the people’s language was polluted by the aristocratic gentility and Latin constructions of the Normans. We Scots had 0ur own languages (lowland Scots, a close relative of middle-English and Highland Gaelic – which we share with the Irish) the Welsh had theirs of course, and still do.

So long before the notion of sexism or misogyny had even been conceived, the word ‘cunt’ had become a battleground in a long-running and bitter culture war and those who were most keen on its erasure were the aristocrats, the theocrats, the patriarchs, and those irritating Puritans that we shunted off on the Mayflower and hoped to never hear from again. As Laurie Penny rightly points out here, excising ‘cunt’ from people’s language was in itself an exercise in controlling and shaming women’s bodies and sexuality. The modern British taboo against saying ‘cunt’ in the presence of a “lady” has much more to do with perpetuating the patriarchal Madonna-whore dichotomy than any kind of acknowledgement of sexism.

As late as 1790, the Scots’ national poet (and a personal political hero, incidentally) Robert Burns was not just toying with vulgarity, he was positively revelling in it. Sometimes it was jocular, 18th century vaudeville, like his poem superficially about a hat called ‘Cock up Your Beaver‘ at other times he didn’t even bother with the pretence. Burns, the son of a ploughman, had a strained relationship with the nobility in both Edinburgh and England whom he felt courted his talent while patronising him and mocking his origins. By writing such unapologetic vulgarity, Burns was very deliberately performing the role of the common man, for the common man – and woman.

Jump forward another couple of hundred years, and to one of my all time favourite films, Shaun of the Dead. Near to the beginning, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in the pub, trying to explain to his pretentious, upwardly mobile friends that his best mate Ed is really a good guy. Ed cheerfully strolls up to the table and beams “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”

Where I grew up in Eastern Scotland, the word cunt is used prolifically. I once heard two elderly women in Dundee talk about their grandchildren, including the memorable phrase “och, the pair wee cunt’s got the maist affy colic” (translation: “Oh, the poor little soul has the most terrible stomach pains.”). Such usage serves a social and political function. It states, very forcefully, that the speaker resides proudly among the vulgar, not the refined. It is used in full knowledge that it will cause upset and offence to those of a delicate disposition. It is a statement of political identity, and I have no doubt that largely explains why it is so much more prevalent in the further flung homelands of Scotland and Ireland – not to mention Australia – than it is in England. Even within England, it is used more commonly the further you get (both geographically and sociopolitically) from the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

This is not a justification or a defence. I could be entirely correct about the above and it could remain true that when used as a slur, the word is deeply misogynistic, positioning women’s bodies and sexuality as something dirty and negative. It can also be true that words change, gather or lose layers of meaning over time. Even if it was once used without intrinsic misogyny does not mean it remains free of those semantics today.

So in that sense, I am not seeking to shift the debate as to the acceptability of the word in either direction. However I am convinced that there is a profound difference between British and American usage. In Britain the word is mostly used for the performative power of its vulgarity, and its misogyny is unnoticed and incidental. In the US, the word is mostly used for its performative misogyny and it is the vulgarity, in terms of social class, which goes unnoticed and incidental. 

There have long been – and continue to be – debates amongst British people as to the c-word’s function and acceptability. Even amongst women and within British feminism there is no kind of consensus on either side, and anyone who claims there is must be disingenuous or mistaken. I do not seek to persuade anyone that the word should be considered harmless or benign, but I would call on everyone to understand that to British people, the politics of cunt are perhaps much more profound, complex and encumbered with historical baggage than you could possibly imagine.

From street harassment to Clarkson: The first rule of causing offence

During my recent blogging hiatus, a couple of teacup-bound tempests blew up in which I detected a common theme. It’s a trend that can also be spotted in all sorts of debates around offensive or hateful language and behaviour, in many contexts.

First, the Guardian became embroiled in one of its periodic ding-dongs about everyday sexism and misogynistic street harassment. It began with a video which set out to turn the tables on catcalling and sexual harassment which, in my view at least, failed on every level – in its concept, its delivery and the message it conveyed. It then sparked a couple of follow-up blogs, culminating in a downright weird piece on Comment is Free by a chap called David Foster who seemed to believe that discouraging men from making unwanted and threatening sexual advances to strange women in the street would lead to the human race dying out. Or something.

In an apparently unrelated news, Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines across the UK media after audio footage emerged of him joshing around hilariously with the hideously racist old children’s rhyme Eenie Meenie Minie Mo. In the ensuing farrago, Marina Hyde stuck out her (perhaps brass) neck and declared herself rather bored by the ritualised ding-dong between left and right over the casual, soft racism of Clarkson and his ilk, and suggested that rising to the bait merely entrenched the debate. This in turn provoked Musa Okwonga to pen one of the most brilliant blogs I’ve read this year: a weary, funny, dignified cry which nonetheless packed a punch like a handful of ballbearings in a silk stocking.

I believe in freedom of speech as a powerful guiding (if not quite absolute) political principle. I don’t think people should be censored or punished by the state for what they say or write, unless their words present a very clear and immediate danger to others. Where we create our own spaces (blogs, websites, homes, social networks, whatever) we can write our own rules and expect others to stick to them, but in shared common spaces, people should be free to cause offence.

I don’t agree with imprisoning drunken idiots who spout foul racism on public transport or who send offensive tweets to me or anyone else on the internet. I do not think it should be a criminal offence to proposition someone sexually on the street. The corollary to that – the inescapable quid pro quo – is that we all must take responsibility for our words and the impact they have on others. I think there is a rule of free human interaction which far too many people fail to grasp, and it goes like this:

None of us gets to decide how another person reacts to what we say or do.

The debates on sexual harassment sparked hundreds, if not thousands of comments that basically boiled down to (usually) men telling (mostly) women that they should be flattered if told A,B or C, that they should not be threatened or offended by behaviours X,Y or Z. The debates about Clarkson were spilling over with (usually) white people telling (mostly) black people that they should relax about racist language, it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything, or if Snoop Dogg says it, why shouldn’t I?

Fail. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.

I offend people, on a fairly regular basis, I know I do. I cannot write about the topics I cover without offending people from time to time with my ideas or my language. I swear a lot, including calling people cunts (note to US-based readers, where I grew up we pretty much use that word as a punctuation mark.)

As a citizen of a nominally free society, I assert and proclaim my right to offend you, and I champion and defend your right to offend me. However neither of us has the right to tell the other not to be offended.

It seems to me that if someone says “I was offended by that” there are several perfectly legitimate responses, including:

1. Oh, did it? I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

2. Good. I fully intended to offend you.

3. Oh did it? So fucking what?

The two responses which I find extremely problematic are:

1. No it didn’t

2. You shouldn’t be offended by that.

What is the difference between the first set and the second set? It is all about ownership and control of another person. When I somehow impinge upon another person’s consciousness, I take the chance that he or she may be happy about that or unhappy about it, may react well or react badly.

If I strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop I might generate a pleasant social interaction for us both, or I might totally freak the other person out. Either response is entirely legitimate. If I pass a woman in the street and say “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen” then she might be walking on air all day or she might be posting online to Everyday Sexism within the hour. Either reaction is entirely legitimate. If I use the word ‘nigger’ or ‘Paki’ in public or print, someone might hear me and think I’m cheekily poking one in the eye of political correctness or that I’m a nasty racist. Either assumption is theirs to make.

In all these examples, the other person might misunderstand my intentions, but that was the risk I took. It is crucial to understand that ‘I didn’t intend to offend you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must therefore not be offended’ any more than ‘I didn’t intend to kill you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must not be dead.

When I talk about the concept of privilege, I’m generally referring to a psychological process, a series of cognitions that are conditioned by one’s experience of status in the world. I think we see it really clearly here. There are few greater markers of a privileged attitude than believing one has the right to tell another how to react emotionally, how to think, how to feel.

We all have the right to be offensive. We also have the right to be offended.