Tuesday, June 17, 2014

When "powerful words" fail

By the end of grad school, I was able to convey what my dissertation was about in anything from a sentence to nearly 500 pages. This is a potentially useful skill, but doesn't seem to carry over to Twitter, where, whenever I get into anything like a serious discussion, my first impulse is to move it off Twitter, either to email or just... anywhere, online or off, without a 140-character limit. So, @pronetolaughter, my reply to your recent tweets is here.

For readers who are not @pronetolaughter (whom I take to be a WWPD reader, because of the apparent response to something I'd written here), the issue was whether there's any advantage to using "racism" rather than "privilege" to discuss systematic unfairness based on race. @pronetolaughter argues that people don't react well to being called racist (true!), and that this is where the term "privilege" comes in - as a gentler (correct me if I'm misunderstanding) way to convey this point. @pronetolaughter also seems to be arguing, if between the lines (and again, feel free to correct), that because I question the efficacy of certain terms in calling out racism, sexism, etc., it's because I, deep down, support racism, sexism, and so forth, and am infiltrating anti-bigotry conversations to spread that message. Well, that's not it, I'm afraid.

My thinking, then, is basically this: The "powerful words" @pronetolaughter criticizes me for trying to get rid of are indeed powerful, but possibly too powerful, such that they're perceived of as overshooting the mark. I'm reminded of a course I once took, where the professor referred to various forms of subtle oppression experienced by marginalized groups (not in the U.S.) as "violences," a "violence" being anything bad, not merely anything violent. I think this may have just been the terminology of whichever subfield this was, but in any case, I found it confusing. I got the general idea - microaggression, more or less - but something about the term seemed forced. Yes, there are non-physical forms of violence, but to call everything bad "violence" ends up making it more difficult to discuss violence-violence, and makes it easier to dismiss non-violent, small-scale forms of oppression. While there is indeed a continuum between calling a black person "articulate" and purchasing a black person as a slave, or between a disproportionate obsession with Israel's flaws vs. that of any other country and holding Nazi sympathies, or between staring a bit too long at a woman on the subway and raping a woman...

I guess where I'm going with this is, you want terms that convey the entire spectrum, and that don't hone in on the worst-case-scenario. As much as it's a powerful argument to point out how low-level bigotry relates to more serious offenses, it them becomes far too easy to brush aside the lower-level stuff as not really counting because it's so plainly not the higher-level stuff. It's become just about impossible to discuss low-level anti-Jewish bigotry because "anti-Semitism" has become too powerful to use.

13 comments:

pronetolaughter said...

"@pronetolaughter also seems to be arguing, if between the lines (and again, feel free to correct), that because I question the efficacy of certain terms in calling out racism, sexism, etc., it's because I, deep down, support racism, sexism, and so forth, and am infiltrating anti-bigotry conversations to spread that message. Well, that's not it, I'm afraid."

No, I'm not implying that at all. I have no idea where you got it from, feel free to highlight some lines that triggered that in you. Please delete that bit before it derails the discussion about how we find words that work. Or, use it as an example--I suggest that you are not engaging with the actual problem, and you hear that I implied you support racism. I think you just proved my point that the fundamental discussion we need to have is about how to avoid triggering defensiveness.

I think you responded to my tweets too quickly, without really thinking them over (I also just commented on your previous post, which you may not have seen). I asked those questions in good faith--what's different now that you think "racism" might work as a word? Did people react to TNC's "you benefit from racism" with the lack of defensiveness we are hoping for? What are the differences between "words that work" and the tone argument? I would love to see a good defense to my questions, but I'm not seeing you really work these ideas through. And I've been reading your blog for years (commenting as dance) and I've seen you do better.

"I guess where I'm going with this is, you want terms that convey the entire spectrum, and that don't hone in on the worst-case-scenario. "

Yes, I got that. I don't even disagree. But I am asking you to propose some such terms, because people react to "racism" and "sexism" with just as defensive a response as "privilege" and "rape culture". You are suggesting we throw away terms that have helped bring about real change in individual mindsets, without offering anything that will work better.

Pick one aspect as a case study, maybe anti-Semitism. Work through it. How do we find some words that work?

Phoebe said...

Thanks for clarifying. I'm not deleting, but I will explain why I thought this. It was a combination of your point about me wanting to take powerful words away from those doing the good work of anti-bigotry, and your link to the post about "derailing," which to me implied that you thought my goal here was to surreptitiously steer conversations away from these topics, and to "silence" activists. But I did say to correct if I misunderstood, and correction accepted!

Re: "Work through it," if someone were paying me to ever-more-deeply expand on my thoughts here, I might well do so. But as it stands, this is the best I can come up with.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, gender politics is rather easy in my view. Unlike with the word "racism" which does not distinguish between people who think black people are, on average, better dancers than white people and members of the KKK (there is no stronger shorthand word to use with the KKK so both are simply described as "racist"), we do have the useful distinction of "sexism" and "misogyny."

If I say something like "I believe, on average, that women love their children more than men do," we can have a discussion if someone accuses me of holding a sexist belief (in fact, I agree that it is, which doesn't make it necessarily false). We can then discuss whether, even if it is true, talking about such things might harm women's status in society in ways I might not approve of and perhaps I could be convinced that I shouldn't even say such things publicly, regardless of whether they're true.

It is especially helpful if my interlocutor recognizes a distinction between sexism and misogyny and is aware that, just because someone holds such a belief, does not mean that he (or she) favors the subjugation and enslavement of women. (Even if my interlocutor might believe, for example, that such beliefs inevitably lead to the subjugation and enslavement of women.) It is crystal clear that Ms. Maltz Bovy recognizes this distinction, but with other potential interlocutors, it is far, far less clear.

However if, when I express such a belief, I am accused of misogyny, then that's something else entirely. Now my interlocutor has revealed himself to be principally interested in rhetorical bomb-throwing for whatever reason. I'm not going to get defensive about it or offended or anything, but I'm not sure why I would bother to engage it.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, having seen your tweet about "commenter contrariness" which, I am fully aware, I am far more guilty of than most, I did want to say that I was able to watch your bloggingheads with Conor Friedersdorf and greatly enjoyed it from beginning to end. I would have enjoyed it even more had there been something for me to be contrary about, but there wasn't.

pronetolaughter said...

Phoebe, it's hard for me to believe that The Atlantic wouldn't pay you for "A replacement for the term privilege" or "How to tell someone they are contributing to rape culture without pissing them off". You have the contacts you would need. If you aren't interested in understanding or solving this problem, then why so many posts around the issue?

And if you think that your proposal "let's use the words racism/sexism instead" does solve the issue, then perhaps you could provide some evidence supporting that claim.

Andrew, someone says "I think women love their children more than men." Someone else says "hmm, that argument often gets used to convince women to drop their promising careers and stay home with the children." In my experience (not with you, of course), men might then say "are you calling me a misogynist?!". You can see a parallel playing out in Phoebe's explanation above. I commented (earlier) on the logical extension of her argument, and I asked a question, providing a definition of what I meant in case she hadn't come across it, and she said "[you think] I, deep down, support racism, sexism, and so forth." So, I'm not certain that interlocutors are the ones missing the distinction.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

Glad you enjoyed the Bloggingheads! Assuming you and the commenter there who liked it aren't the same person, that makes at least two.

I guess the idea is, sexism is the umbrella term for the lot of it. And my bias is for using umbrella terms whenever applicable.

pronetolaughter,

I assure you I'm thinking and writing about this topic beyond WWPD, and your critiques are among those helping me think this through.

That's also an interesting idea of how freelancing works. To clarify on that point, not every thought I have becomes a pitch, not every pitch becomes an article.

Miss Self-Important said...

No substantive comments here except to say that this is a very confusing multi-medium argument to follow. I also hate Twitter for this reason.

The everything-is-violence comes from 1970s critical theory, I believe (not to be confused w/ 1970s literary theory). Ironically, the exact same scenario occurred in one of my college courses too, over Robert Cover's article on violence and the law. It inspired mega-outrage in one guy, who was quiet for a while and then exploded to the effect that if everything is violence, if a cop pulling you over for speeding is violence, and a judge upholding the ticket is violence, and my looking at you askance is violence, then really NOTHING IS VIOLENCE and he is going to go kill someone after class and say it's no worse than an insult. He was a little over the top, but I think I still agree with his point. And even academic political theory has generally backed off and turned to words like "domination" or "coercion" to describe instances of behavior they oppose that are strictly non-violent.

Andrew Stevens said...

Andrew, someone says "I think women love their children more than men." Someone else says "hmm, that argument often gets used to convince women to drop their promising careers and stay home with the children." In my experience (not with you, of course), men might then say "are you calling me a misogynist?!".

I would argue for the approach I advocated above. I.e. pre-empt that response by stating from the beginning that you believe the comment is sexist, but don't believe it is misogynist. I do want to stress, though, that I'm not trying to tell anybody what to do here. It is perfectly reasonable if you don't want to do that because, for example, you're not really interested in engaging with people who would respond in such an unreasonably defensive manner (since personally I think your example response was fine); I wouldn't blame you a bit for that. They probably represent the flipside of the debate and are actively looking for something to be offended by.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Critical theory! That makes sense then.

caryatis said...

Phoebe,

You say " you want terms that convey the entire spectrum, and that don't hone in on the worst-case-scenario." Hard to come up with those, though. I think people are going to get offended when you accuse them of bias, period. Does it really make a difference to say "anti-Jewish bigotry" vs anti-Semitism or sexism vs misogyny or racism vs racial stereotyping or...whatever other term one could come up with, once people figure out what it means they're going to resent having it applied to them.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

There are two issues here. One is that no one likes to be accused of anything, esp. of bias. The other is how these questions are discussed in the abstract, or in the third person. It's become impossible to call an *incident* anti-Semitic without seeming hysterical. Which is different from the challenge of accusing any individual of any form of bias.

caryatis said...

But don't you think someone who thinks you're hysterical for mentioning anti-Semitism is going to think the same no matter what name you come up with? I don't think it's a nomenclature problem, in other words, it's the belief that bias problems are exaggerated.

Phoebe said...

Well yes - it's a flawed analogy, because the issue with "anti-Semitism" isn't that the term itself inherently suggests the Holocaust (it certainly didn't in the 1890s!), but that it's come to mean this. The reason I bring up this example, though, isn't to draw a perfect analogy. Instead, my point is that there are all these arguments to use stronger language to describe bigotry - to draw connections between, say, images of scantily-clad women on newsstands and sexual assault. I'm saying that maybe we want to think twice before trying to have the words used for everyday bigotry be ones that evoke extreme variants thereof.