Thursday, December 13, 2007

Our Problem Too

This Echidne post on feminists debating "trivialities" is great the whole way through. She lambastes "concern trolls" who claim to support feminist ends but complain that nominal feminists spend all their time debating trivial concerns like language. If only they were talking about rape in Saudi Arabia, then I'd be right on board. Echidne responds:
Note first that the real and grave injustices that women still face: oppression, rape and even being killed for their gender in some countries, are somehow all problems that only the feminists should try to solve. The rest of the society can just sit back and criticize the feminist attempts, almost like those ice-skating judges at the Olympics. Though of course they would applaud should the feminists actually solve all those frighteningly large problems, without much external funding and while being criticized of nitpicking and various forms of lunacy. But are these problems not the responsibility of the rest of the humankind to solve? It appears not. Only the feminists are expected to fix the world for billions of women.

So true. If you don't think feminists are focusing on the right issues, I guess that's your prerogative. But then you better start focusing on those "right issues". Criticizing them for not pressing for women's rights in Iran is a hollow gesture if your next move is to write your Congressman demanding he repeal the Estate Tax.

But also, as Echidne points out, these "trivialities" are often a big deal to those affected. It's easy to call "trivial" what you yourself aren't being subjected to, but that doesn't mean it's not a special form of arrogance to demean the experience of the other:
That there might be something deeper in the trivial topics some feminists (read: Echidne) chooses is lost on the critics. This something deeper is twofold: First, language matters. It matters that the most common insults in the unmoderated parts of the blog threads are about the object of the insult taking the female position in sex (blow me! bend over!). It matters that a politician who is viewed as bought is called someone's bitch. It matters that "whores" are a common term of denigration, too. It even matters when a politician gives a speech with references to great statesmen, not to stateswomen, and it matters because of what the images might be that our brains create from that speech, and how those images then become expectations having to do with how a politician should look (masculine).

Second, trivialities are sometimes trivial for only those who are not affected by them. Suppose that you are bitten by mosquitoes while your friend is not. You go out for a camping holiday together. You get bitten in the morning, your friend does not. You get bitten at noon, your friend does not. You get bitten in the afternoon, your friend does not. You get bitten all evening at the campfire while your friend enjoys some marshmallows. You then scratch like mad and swear and rant, and your friend suggests that you pay far too much attention to such trivialities as mosquito bites. Then you kill your friend.

People who haven't experienced what you have (or, usually worse, have experienced it one time in isolation and think that because it wasn't a big deal then, they "know" you can deal with it now) don't have the right to tell you what matters and what doesn't in your life. I'm sorry, but you don't get to expropriate experience that way. Certainly, sometimes we have to take our best guesses, and we remain free to forward our opinions and conjectures about what matters and what doesn't. But, as Iris Marion Young put it, ultimately "the only correction to...misrepresentation of the standpoint of others is their ability to tell me that I am wrong about them." You got to listen, people!


1 comment:

PG said...

I'm with her on all of it except the use of the term "whore" as an insult. Literally, a whore is a person who can be bought for a purpose that many people think should not be in the market. A politician who is called a "whore" is selling his vote (or something else peculiar to his elected position) that people think should not be in the market. I'll concede that "whore" has an etymology that specifies it for women, but frankly because historically men have had the money and the statistical majority of men are heterosexual, the majority of prostitutes have been female.

I think one shouldn't use the word whore for someone who isn't actually getting paid (the use for someone who has unpaid sex with lots of different people is a misusage; we already have a negative word for such a person: promiscuous). But why is it a problem for someone who is?