Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Q: When Is Being Criticized Like Having Your Limbs Blown Off by a Landmine? A: When The Criticism Comes from Someone with Less Privilege Than You

Awhile back, I read an excellent post by the women's studies professor, and feminist blogeger, Hugo Schwyzer, called Words are not fists: some thoughts on how men work to defuse feminist anger.

In this post, he writes about how the men speak in his women's studies class:

...two of the guys did something that I see over and over again from men in women's studies classes. They prefaced their remarks by joking "I know I'm going to get killed for saying this, but..." One of them, even pretended to rise from his desk to position himself by the door, saying that "Once I say this, I know I'm going to have to make a run for it." Most of the women laughed indulgently, and I even found myself grinning along. thing I remember from my own college days that I see played out over and over again is this male habit of making nervous jokes about being attacked by feminists. In my undergrad days, I often prefaced a comment by saying "I know I'll catch hell for this". I've seen male students do as they did today and pretend to run; I've seen them deliberately sit near the door, and I once had one young man make an elaborate show (I kid you not) of putting on a football helmet before speaking up!

All of this behavior reflects two things: men's genuine fear of being challenged and confronted, and the persistence of the stereotype of feminists as being aggressive "man-bashers." The painful thing about all this, of course, is that no man is in any real physical danger in the classroom -- or even outside of it -- from feminists. Name one incident where an irate women's studies major physically assaulted a male classmate for something he said? Women are regularly beaten and raped -- even on college campuses -- but I know of no instance where a man found himself a victim of violence for making a sexist remark in a college feminist setting! "Male-bashing" doesn't literally happen, in other words, at least not on campus. But that doesn't stop men from using (usually half in jest) their own exaggerated fear of physical violence to make a subtle point about feminists.

There's a conscious purpose to this sort of behavior. Joking about getting beaten up (or putting on the football helmet) sends a message to young women in the classroom: "Tone it down. Take care of the men and their feelings. Don't scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys." And you know, as silly as it is, the joking about man-bashing almost always works! Time and again, I've seen it work to silence women in the classroom, or at least cause them to worry about how to phrase things "just right" so as to protect the guys and their feelings. It's a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn't the actual intent of the young man doing it -- it forces women students to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger. It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those "angry feminists" who (literally) scares men off and drives them away.

Criticism is not fists! This is a brilliant observation.

Of course, it's obvious. If I say "Your idea is sexist," then I'm not literally slugging you in the face. But at the same time, the joking frame allows the analogy to pass unnoticed. And when it passes unnoticed, its effect can be insidious. The women act to protect the man's feelings. They soften their criticism so they won't fulfill the violent imagery of the man's preemptive metaphor.
But I want to take it farther than Hugo does. People don't just say "don't attack me" as a way of getting feminists to back down. They also say it because they have a sense of being attacked. Criticism is not fists, but people really seem to perceive it that way.

And the less privilege the person who's making the criticism has, the more it feels like an attack. In this post, Ginmar (feminist veteran and SF writer) quotes Amanda Marcotte (ex-campaign blogger for John Edwards, who writes for the feminist blog Pandagon) : "“The less right you have to talk in the eyes of the hierarchy, the louder you seem. Which is probably why black women are seen as the loudest people ever.”

We see this in a lot of places, right? The common sense conviction that women talk more than men cannot be supported, and in fact, people find data that suggests that -- in ordinary conversation -- men talk more than women. If researchers externally impose a requirement that both men and women speak the same amount, then they both report that it feels like the men hardly got a chance to talk at all.

Women aren't supposed to talk, so when they talk, they're seen as talking A LOT. Black women really aren't supposed to talk, so when they talk, they're seen as talking REALLY LOUDLY.

Women aren't supposed to criticize, so when they criticize, it's not just words -- the surprise of their criticism feels like fists. And when women of color criticize? Well, then it's World War III.

No, really. World War III.

In other parts of the feminist blogosphere, there's a big controversy over a book called Full Frontal Feminism by Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti. The book has drawn criticism from a number of women of color who say, among other criticisms, that it is not inclusive, and that it talks about women of color rather than talking to them.

This has touched off a great deal of angry posts and hurt feelings, including several threads on another feminist blog caleld Feministe. I haven't read the book, so I can't speak to whether the criticisms are valid. What I can speak to is the way that these criticisms have been discussed, dismissed, and characterized as violent. For instance, here are a few scattered comments from
a Feministe thread about the book:

WWIII declared on Jessica
malicious defamation of her character

if people would stop trying to crucify Jessica
stop treating her like she’s Satan’s spawn
there’s a limit to how far your demonization can go

Criticizing Jessica's book is the same as starting a word war. It's malicious defamation. It's nailing her to a cross; it's demonizing her as Satan's spawn. (Note that it wasn't the author herself, Jessica Valenti, who said any of these things.)

And it's not just the Full Frontal Feminism debate. Looking closer to home in the science fiction blogosphere, we can see the same racialized dynamic at play. Science fiction writer K. Tempest Bradford, blogging at the Angry Black Woman, recently put up a brilliant post on How to Promote Diversity in Fiction Markets. Springing off that conversation, Tobias Bucknell put up a post discussing diversity in science fiction, where, inevitably, the Angry Black Woman's post came up in the comments. Here, a commenter called Jaime writes:

And the truth is that it wouldn’t matter what I said in a discussion like this, or how carefully I phrased it or if it was an honest belief on my part or not. Unless I accept everything ABW says as the gospel truth, which I don’t, I was doomed before I started. I’m white, so every thought and opinion is suspect. At best I’d come off as rather dim but well meaning. At the worst I’d have people openly screaming racist as they are on ABW’s post whether that was true or not.

But I stepped onto the mine field with my eyes open so I can’t complain about getting my leg blown off. I might as well go for the full package.

Because criticism from Angry Black Woman (or black people, including men, who agree with her) is the same as Jaime having her leg blown off by a landmine.

Sure, this is hyperbole. And yes, as Steve pointed out to me when I criticized him on the feministe thread, hyperbole is a rhetorical device. However, like any rhetorical device, it's important to look into what it's doing, and why it's doing it. It's not just a matter of personal style; language reflects the world, and it has power.

I'm particularly disturbed by the escalation in the violent imagery that one sees when comparing the examples that Hugo brings up (men talking to women in a gendered environment) to the examples that I'm bringing up (white people talking about people of color in a racialized environment). Men are worried about being beaten up; white people are worried about crucifixion, World War III, having their feet blown off by landmines.

There could be lots of reasons for these differences. This is certainly too small a sample to prove that the difference is race. If the research net were to be widened, we might find that metaphors about women's gendered criticism of men were just as violent as metaphors about people of color's racialized criticism of white people. If there is a difference, it could also be due to the internet environment; people may just be more colorful when they're writing. If the difference is race, though, I think we'd find that the increase in violent language is related to the same thought process that leads people to think that white women talk too much, but wonder why black women are so angry.

It's important to acknowledge that English is a language full of violent metaphors. Those metaphors get into our ways of thinking and speaking. I'm sure it's possible to find examples of people comparing criticism to attack in situations where privilege isn't part of the equation. However, that doesn't mean that race, sex, and privilege have no effect in the situations I quote above.

Hugo points out that comparing criticism to fists is silencing. In the classroom, it functions to inhibit what the women are saying, because they have to positively act to reject the associations that the male has conjured with his violent metaphor. By comparing the woman's words to violence, he calls into being the image of her as a violent person, which she has to rebut by tempering her words.

In the contexts above, hyperbolic, violent exagerration also functions as a power play. Consciously or unconsciously, it's intended to reassert privilege through a hyperbolic dismissal of the critiquer's words.

And it's also -- perhaps primarily -- a defensive reaction. Since women and people of color don't have as much perceived right to criticize, their criticism stings more. It becomes not just criticism but fists, wars, and bombs.

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