Guest post: “The rules” 2

Originally a comment by SallyStrange on “The rules”.

Funny, I was having a conversation on FB yesterday along these lines. Nice guy, uneducated about feminism and the ins and outs of dehumanizing language. People were explaining why it’s not okay to use “female” as a noun to refer to women.

“So are you saying that I’m not ALLOWED to do that?” He’d respond. Or, “I see, so, saying cunt isn’t permitted because it doesn’t fit with civil discourse.”

No, people would say, you’re ALLOWED to do whatever you want. It’s just that this kind of language is inadvisable for the following reasons. And again he’d fall back on the allowed/permitted/forbidden paradigm.

I think I actually ran into an authoritarian who’s well-intentioned AND introspective self-aware. Kind of a novelty.

I ended up explaining to him that nobody has the power to enforce anything here. If he disregards us, the only thing that will happen is that some people will feel upset or angry and might express that. And others–namely  misogynists–might feel vindicated. His framing made it seem as if he only refrains from dehumanizing women because there are rules about it and he follows rules. But that isn’t how morality works, or, at least, it isn’t how it ought to work, in my opinion. Saying, “These are THE RULES” removes the need to take responsibility for making your own moral choices. So, I said as much, and now he’s mulling it over.


  1. rnilsson says

    Thanks for taking the time and trouble to try to educate and explain to someone possibly amenable to instruction. And for sharing here.

  2. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Exactly. It’s just astonishing how many people are unable/unwilling to grasp the difference between “doing X is illegal” and “If you do X, you’re an asshole”. It’s not exactly rocket science, is it…

  3. says

    Bjarte @ 2: I like to use the phrase “pretending to be unable to understand”. I think it’s often the most honest way of describing things like that.

  4. says

    “If you do X, you’re an asshole”

    It’s my opinion that the discussion surrounding morality often (deliberately!) pays scant attention to the role of retaliation. Many try to argue “you should do X because Y, Z” community-oriented reasons like “people will like you” or whatever. But they neglect to mention “You’ll be laughed or called an asshole, blocked, ignored, argued with, etc.” In some cases the purpose of the argument is to educate but let’s be honest with ourselves – often we argue with smug assholes simply to let them know that they’re not anywhere near as impressive as they think they are, and – in fact – they are not popular. I can’t see that as anything but retaliation: “Hey, you came here and made reading this blog a bit less rewarding for me, so I am going to respond by taking away the enjoyment you might otherwise get from doing so.” This may be an important thing to consider, because some trolls’ reward system appears to be based on getting attention – it doesn’t matter whether it’s positive attention (“ooh, you are awesome!”) or negative attention (“go away, asshole!”) – retaliating against such trolls amounts to rewarding them. Hence the doctrine of “don’t feed the trolls.” If I’m dealing with someone who annoys me, I base my response on what will remove their enjoyment of the situation, not what will increase my enjoyment. Because my enjoyment has already been reduced (that’s what “annoyed” means)

  5. deepak shetty says

    People were explaining why it’s not okay to use “female” as a noun to refer to women
    Uh – anyone have any links? I use this word 🙁

  6. says

    deepak @5

    Because “female” (especially as a noun rather than an adjective) is dehumanising in many contexts. It’s the way we speak of livestock, pets, and lab animals. This effect is heightened when speaking of “men” and “females”. If you’re comparing male to female XYZs, it’s usually okay (though the comparison itself might prove sexist), otherwise, use “woman”.

  7. says

    Just don’t use “female” as a noun, Deepak, unless you are in biology class or some similar appropriate setting.

    If you use “female” as a noun in casual conversation to refer to women, it is a very literal example of dehumanizing language, because “female” could refer to female adult humans, or female juvenile humans, or female animals, or female plants, or possibly even electrical sockets!

  8. he11cat81 says

    Exactly, one way I use to get some men to see why women’s experience of sexism can be so bad is the petrie multiplier. Even in this system which doesn’t include women being sexist to other women, and assumes women and men are equally sexist to each other, even WITH those qualifiers it shows how in a male dominated space women can be subjected to such a massive amount of sexism.

    I know there’s a lot of factors at play and its so much more complicated than this, but it can be useful to show that trying to combat sexism is not an attack on men, or than men are evil horrible beings. This can often be a good first step onto the feminism ladder.

  9. deepak shetty says

    Think Ill read up some more – I’m not entirely convinced – (Ive always though lady- woman- female were interchangeable without additional implications)
    but it doesn’t really bother me to always use woman if people have objections to female as noun.

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