Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Old, fluffy feminist allsorts from the bottom of my think-bag

None of these things are new, I'm just putting them in an appropriate place as part of an ongoing spring-cleaning operation. The part of the spring-cleaning I've reached is that bit where I pretend to be organising my thoughts in order to avoid organising actual objects such as the large piles of papers which occupy every corner of every room in the flat.

Thing The First: An article from a couple of years ago by Jen Dziura which says a lot of sensible things about how yelling at somebody in a clearly emotional, irrational way is not a debating skill but is somehow considered more acceptable (on TV, at least) than letting your opponent complete a full sentence. I particularly like this illustration of why "dominating the discussion" shouldn't be viewed as "winning the argument":

On a talk radio show, I would undoubtedly lose the fight to grab airspace for myself, just as I often lose the fight for airspace in many barroom discussions and bloviating dinner-table talks. So obviously my ideas are invalid.
The way most “debates” happen, on television and otherwise, is like beginning a writing contest by making all the writers physically fight each other for paper. Obviously, writers who don’t get any paper are the worst writers, right?
This seems especially relevant with all the UK election TV debate stuff. It could be argued that we need politicians who can make their point effectively while being shouted down and jeered at from all sides, because that's what they have to do in the House of Commons. What would be better all round is if our Parliament resembled an intelligible exchange of facts and opinions, rather than a prison riot.

Thing The Second: A piece from last year called "Notes From a Boner", from the truly awesome and invaluable Captain Awkward blog. Most posts contain thoughtful and supportive advice on all manner of life problems and I highly recommend it for anyone who has a relationship, friendship, work or family issue, or simply isn't sure if the thing they've been obsessing over all week is actually A Thing. This post is different, and is a lovely description of those many, many times when idiotic, sexist comments come streaking through life, mooning at everyone in sight:

And in every. freaking. internet discussion, there they are. Fucking boners. Women can be discussing literally any topic, and dudes will come interrupt to tell us how it makes boners feel. Sometimes they want to reassure us, like, when we talk about being fat as a feminist issue, or the constrictions of conventional beauty standards, they chime into say “But I like bigger girls.” Well thanks, Internet Stranger-boner! That totally makes up for every bad thing women have ever experienced at the hands of the patriarchy, which definitely for sure does not include you. Other times women will be talking about particle physics or literature or their very responsible jobs, like, running the world and stuff, and the boners feel left out and confused, so they just say completely inane stuff. As if “I would/would not do her” is the one true standard on earth.
I guess what I’m saying is that I need the boners to shut the hell up for a while. PEOPLE can speak, just, try to go like a month without letting your boner chime in to offer its thoughts on whether someone is sufficiently hot. Please. I beg you. 
Thing the Third: I was chatting to someone the other day and the topic of feminism came up. The conversation ran for a bit in a very well-worn groove: this person agrees with many of the progressive issues covered by the umbrella of feminism but thinks that that it goes too far sometimes and that the "going too far" is reflected in the name. He'd prefer it to be called "equalicism" or similar, to reflect that it isn't just advocating for women. Well... yes, but no. It would be nice if the names of things conveyed to absolutely everyone, with perfect accuracy, the nature of that thing. But they don't. They can't. And on top of the natural limitations of language, some people are always going to go out of their way to assign other meanings to things, especially to political movements advocating for change to which they are opposed.

If we start bending over backwards to accommodate people who can't be bothered to find out what something actually is before kicking off against it, then we will spend our lives as immobile pretzels. If someone said that they'd like to hire you but they've heard that some people with your first name have been known to punch koalas and could you please call yourself something else in future, I suspect you'd withdraw your application.


*** THIS NEXT PART IS ABOUT A PARTICULAR SWEAR WORD AND WILL, I'M SURE, GET RIGHT UP SOME PEOPLE'S NOSES. If you're in a bad mood or are sick of having this argument with people who definitely are sexist trolls and you're therefore likely to dislike me if you read on then please stop here. Please. I don't want to annoy anyone but I do need to get this off my chest.***

Slightly Related Thing The Fourth: On the subject of the word "cunt" and whether using it as an insult is necessarily sexist. I don't think it is in all contexts, no matter how many times I read people's arguments on this matter (and holy crap, this doesn't half come up a lot). However, because a lot of people on a lot of websites I visit frequently find the word offensive, I've decided not to throw it about online. I completely understand the absolutist position. Particularly for websites which are continually under siege from armies of commenters, well-meaning or otherwise, seeking to question or attack every damn thing they say, I can see how the use of the word and a reluctance to stop using it once people have objected would be a huge red flag.

What gets my back up, not that I'm going to go whine about this on someone else's blog*, is the argument that over here in the UK, where we throw the word round more than in the USA and generally with less malice behind it, we're somehow ignorant of how offensive we're being. Especially when someone tells a British feminist that they shouldn't use the word, suggesting that they have somehow missed the fact that it refers to female genitalia, I can feel my claws start to lengthen. Words are complicated things. Context is complicated. I'm not arguing that someone else's feelings and associations upon hearing the word are less valid that my own. If you're upset by something then you have the right to ask someone to stop doing it. Equally, if you know a word upsets someone then by using it at them, you are accepting those feelings as a consequence.

But but BUT... words exist within a web of meanings formed by past usage and other cultural considerations. There are positive reasons for saying "cunt": it doesn't have that creepy, demeaning association with swords that "vagina" does. It can be pretty empowering, as a woman, to use that word about a part of myself, particularly when someone's expecting me to say something infantilised like "hoo-hah". It's pretty damn superb as a plot element in Atonement. It sounds so much better and more subversive than other swear words in a Lancashire accent (which I have, sometimes, depending on who I'm talking to). There are times, when talking to people who I'm pretty sure share my web of associations, when only that word will do. As much as I try to use "turd" or "arsehole" as my go-to insult, sometimes"fuck you, and the crashing wave of self-important twaddle you surfed in on" can only be capped off with the words "you cunt". I want people to stop being afraid of the word. I want it to be reclaimed rather than shunned. I certainly don't want it to become the sole property of Men's Rights Activists and only ever used to reduce whole human persons to the only one of their organs which is considered valuable to those... pigs. Calling someone a "cunt" was never a simple case of demonising a gender-specific orifice**. Yes, it can be used in a sexist way but there's a whole lot more going on and it would be a shame if all of that got stripped away leaving only the sexism.

So those are some of the things swirling round in my head when I consider using the word. And if I've carefully considered all of this, thought about my audience and the effect I'm trying to create, as writers - even ones in this quaint little backwater of Britain - tend to do, it would be nice if that effort wasn't ignored as running counter to the ONE TRUE MEANING of the word. Unlike racist insults, which are imposed by a dominant group in an act of dehumanisation and oppression, the words for body parts belong to everyone. People in that cultural context over there do not get to tell people in this cultural context over here that their word for a body part is always and forever off limits. Again, that doesn't mean that the people who have a reaction against the word are wrong, or that they should be subjected to the word more as retribution, just that both sides should acknowledge that these different contexts, associations and communication needs exist. In other words, if someone says that they don't personally find the word offensive and certainly had no intention of being sexist, try not to be a total earlobe about it.


*I've jumped into a comment section on this topic before and am sorry for having done so. There was an American writer complaining about the use of the word in a British TV show, several British people, including myself, offered our perspectives (which seemed valid as it was a script written by and for British people) and it all got very nasty. I'll admit that some of the pro-"cunt" arguments weren't very persuasive and echoed the defenses of some people when called out on racist or other definitely discriminatory language. It still doesn't make it right to point at another culture's output and declare "that very definitely means exactly what I think it means and it should be stopped" without properly listening to what people from that culture are telling you.

**If that's not a sensible way to use the term gender then please do tell me and maybe point me at some explanatory material. I keep trying to put the time in to making sure I don't get this wrong but I'm going to slip up sometimes and will require some prodding in the right direction. I don't intend to suggest here that the Venn diagram of people with vaginas and people who identify as women is a single circle or that it would be a particularly worthwhile diagram.