I Was A Teenage Sexist Chicken
by the national gadfly, Fri Feb 20, 2009 at 10:44:50 PM EST
This post is not about Sexism or Feminism, it is about my experience in talking about them.
I have had several conversations lately about how people engage in debate over sex / gender / body (SGB) identity issues. I am launching a blog that supports dialogue on those issues and in the communities that they create. As I frame the terms of the conversations and the goals of the site, I have begun to articulate my view on the structure of dialogue itself.
(Cross-posted at The National Gadfly)
Simply put, I have been thinking about how we treat each other inside a conversation about SGB issues and identity. I noticed some patterns of how we seem argue with each other inside these conversations. This post is not about something specific to SGB issues, advocates themselves or the conversations. This is about how we speak to each other about those issues. SGB issue conversations are not somehow different from other conversations. I simply care about them more. This applies to Racism, Classism, TG discrimination or any other conversation regarding society and individuals.
I will mostly use 1st person in this post, not because I think I'm 'right' or 'better' or anything. It is just that I think that by making statements using the 3rd person (we/they/you), it is not as honest or intimate and is often a distraction. As a reader, you may be left wondering who the subject is, whether to defend your own views and how I can claim to know other peoples thoughts & motives. My writing tends to be more effective when I am describing my personal experience.
Guys hang back(and it's not just guys)
I was chatting with friend about how Feminism & Sexism are addressed on some blogs. She noted her experience that "men hang back" to see how the women are going to respond and later come in on the 'safe' side with a hearty "yeah, what <span style="text-decoration: underline;">she</span> said!" It's not universal across blogs, but it brings up an interesting point: chickening out.
Why would men hide out? Maybe they have been lambasted and they are 'gun-shy' Certainly, I have been told a) I am sexist b) go do homework c) come back with approved answers. Sometimes in harsh terms, peppered with "@$$hole" or "troll". I may have fully deserved that response or not. But, the idea that I would 'hide out' because some woman treated me harshly is in itself a responsibility dodge.
Hiding is a choice - my choice. Period. The only person that makes me hide or stop hiding, is me.
There is responsibility and there are consequences. In blogs and live conversations. I have a very clear example of this in my personal life. I had a girlfriend and she became pregnant. We sat on the bed and she asked me what I wanted to do. I told her that I would do whatever she wanted to do. Right there - I chickened out.
What I did there was to lay it all on her. When we broke up, she said to me that the relationship died on that day in that conversation. She knew I was afraid and didn't want a child. She wanted my honesty and my intimacy. I gave her neither. It hurt our relationship. I withheld my voice, my experience and how I felt.
It's like that on blogs and in face-to-face conversations. The problem with hanging back or hiding out, is that real communication struggles to exist without all parties involved in the conversation. Everybody in the conversation loses out when someone hides out.
It's not just men and it's not just Sexism or Feminism. How many people walk away from or hide out instead of speaking their mind and making a difference? How many of us hold our voice still when we are afraid? How many women identify themselves as Feminists but do not find agreement from Feminist books, blogs or speakers? I have met some. Are they the only ones? If there are more, where do they go and how do they contribute to the cause? Where are their voices heard? I don't know.
Where else do people hide out? Work? Family? We all probably do it in our lives to some degree. Nobody alive today, invented it. We can all quit at any time. We can even relapse and quit again. Speaking up is not without benefit. In my life there is no greater feeling than feeling of being in a conversation with someone where both people feel heard by each other.
There are no correct answers
The academic hierarchy model of argument is wonderful in science - but psychology, sexism and discrimination are not hard science. It is a limiting mistake to language them in such terms. I mean that by treating subjective opinion as if it were objective fact is a disservice to the focal cause. Not just in context but in results. It sets up a false sense of truth and proof.
Also, an 'academic' or 'scientific' hierarchy looks to me like a lot of other paternalistic structures, perhaps even reinforcing some of the very assumptions, definitions, prejudices and messages that are being challenged in a conversation about SGB identity.
One example of my experience from Feminism conversations goes something like this:
A certain "1st Wave" theory was proven wrong in 1971 by so-and-so. This "2nd Wave" theory was proven wrong in 1981 by so-and-so. "3rd Wave" has theory become X, as anyone who has read so-and-so would know....and so forth.
I've done that in life. Replaying someone else's argument from the past is a shortcut. I was trying to 'win' the argument. I wanted to be right. I was not looking into my own life to see how this conversation really impacted me. Who cares why? I was not thinking for myself - but only of myself. That's the critical factor. By doing so, I deprived myself of the full knowledge of my impact on others and the chance to grow up. I lost out. The people I was talking to lost out. The greater conversation around sexism lost out because I was both saying nothing new and denying my own personal contribution, both past and present.
It's a classic case of 'precedence' - "if so-and-so said it, it must be true". History becomes canon which in turn becomes rote. I don't want to hear what a professor or author said sometime in the past. I want to hear how this issue has impacted the person I'm talking to - in their own life. Have they ever said or thought anything like that? Was it done to them? Have I done that to them? How did they feel? What does the person in front of me think about all of this? What is this person's gift of intellect, reason and vision have to offer our conversation?
So, now I have started asking people how this issue has impacted them in their life. Have they ever thought or said anything like that? Has it ever been said to them? How did they feel? Have I ever said something like that to them?
On the topic of academic debate: I would like to see 1 million people stumbling through conversations together over the merits of Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin or anyone else for that matter. I would much rather the multitude of amateurs than a much smaller number of people that have read all the right materials, learned all the correct thoughts and speak in the appropriate homages to the good topics. I like academic and structured debates. I simply think that they cannot contain the larger population's experience or contribution to any subject.
If I had to choose between a flawless argument that is given by one really smart person or 10 million amateur, untrained opinions, I would take the latter for a greater impact on improving society's performance on the issue. The larger group represents more individual contribution to the discourse, which I think is the only valuable currency in these debates. Dogma fails where cognition succeeds. If we recorded 15 million conversations about Betty Friedan and each person spoke on the subject matter in terms of their own experience, honestly; then every one of those conversations would be relevant and contain something new.
Don't get me wrong, structured debate has a place and a real value. I honestly love participating in them. I like discussing the history of Feminist Theory. It's informative. I even like talking to people much smarter than myself. However, the broad and sweeping change in society will occur in the bazaar and not in the cathedral.
It's OK to fall down
My life got better in these conversations when I realized that I was going to make mistakes. Lots of them. (Actually, I made all the mistakes then figured out what had happened.) Once I accepted that, it all got better. I don't want to make mistakes, but I do make them. We all do. There is a difference between knowing that I may offend someone and striving to do so. I am going to get flamed or yelled at or disagreed with. I used to believe that I had to defend my position in arguments, to save face, etc. That's not how it turned out to be. These conversations are a dance in some ways. I know that the desired result is equality and respect for all. That serves as the tempo to the dance. The words and opinions of those I speak with and myself - are the notes and the melody.
I just remind myself that there is a difference between myself and Rush Limbaugh but that does not excuse me from responsibility. I am admitting my fallibility - not giving myself license to offend.
So, what is my point? Why say all this? Because I wanted to encourage others to step forward into the mistakes and successes of these conversations. I used my own mistakes as references and examples for someone else to look at their own experience and bring it to the conversation on SGB issues, or race, or class. The water is choppy sometimes and you will spill. So long as you care and respect, you will be fine. People will insult you and me and each other. It goes with the territory and I can't begin to judge their motives. If I'm lucky, if you're lucky maybe those people will contribute to our lives in some meaningful way.
So, come in in from the shadows. If you have gone away, please come back. It's OK. We need you. I need you.