Let’s talk words (in which I am apolitically correct)

Words are powerful things. While the origin of the quote is disputed, back in the annals of history, several people opined something along the lines of “among great leaders, the pen is mightier than the sword”, referring to how the best leaders recognise the power of ideas before they recognise military power. Words fuel discrimination in huge ways, whether we dismiss this fuel or not. And words are one of the most insidious ways we disrespect and disclude women, transsexual, intersex, and homosexual people, even beyond the fact that words are largely classist due to the fact that you need a very good education to understand even half of them. Maybe thousands of years later, we’ll be arguing about who said that words determine the way we think.

There’s nothing political about political correctness- you don’t need to be left-wing to value social justice. It’s about taking away the power of words to dictate the way we think- have you ever wondered why talking about doctors gets people to assume you’re talking about men? Possibly because you’re used to having other subtle indicators in people’s language point out the gender of the person they’re talking about for you, which are largely absent with doctors. Possibly because the way many people use English assumes that male is the norm or default. One of the most wonderful things feminism has brought with it, to my mind, is the idea of English as a language that’s no longer normative, where there are a lot less assumptions about what a word, and therefore a sentence, means.

A prominent example of sexist words is that our pronouns are gendered and binary. Some people insist that you’re a he or a she, or if you’re lucky, a (s)he. (even if you’re intersex or transgendered or genderqueer) Recently we’ve been getting retro and using “they” as a nice ambiguously genderless pronoun, but it’s not catching and the more inflexible grammarians are rioting over plural ambiguity.1

There’s also the whole issue with -man and man-. Mankind? No, I think you mean humankind. Fireman? No, I think you mean firefighter. Chairman? No, I think you mean chair, or maybe chairperson if you like long words. Manpower? I think you mean labour. Manhours? I think you mean workhours. I’m still working on manhole2, however. 🙂

normative sexuality versus pluralistic sexualityThen there’s sexuality- our labels for sexuality are mostly normative, even though our society is becoming a lot more pluralistic on this matter. I think here the teenagers have it right- we like boys or we like girls, or we like both. Saying that we’re gay or straight, hetero or homo, feeds into heteronormativity. Two wonderful new words should make your acquaintance: gynosexual and androsexual, respectively meaning “attracted to women” and “attracted to men”. Not only do these words not assume a norm, they can’t even identify gayness or straightness without you knowing who they’re being attached to. They also join bisexuality in uniting sexuality by the object of attraction- drawing attention to the potential similarities in what women and men are attracted to about men, and what women and men are attracted to about women. The mere existence of terms like this offer a subtle challenge to our ideas about sexuality.

It’s even more illustrative of how easy this type of thinking is that “Maori” can be translated as “normal”, and “Pakeha” as “different”. But I’ll leave the concept of pluralistic racial language to someone much better equipped to deal with it.

1If you’re one of those grammarians, I suggest to you that you attempt to resurrect the second-person familiar pronoun otherwise known as “thee” before you complain about us copying respected literary figures like Jane Austin in adding some general (and not just gender) ambiguity to our pronouns. And if anyone starts talking about gender being a grammatical term and having its meaning stolen by feminism, I’ll whack them over the head with my over-sized German dictionary (it comes with three genders included) as a way of introducing them to the idea that a term can have multiple contexts. Try mentioning the word “jerk” to a group of teenagers, then to a group of physicists, and you might see what I mean.
2Personholes have thus far failed to catch on, especially as they’re often taken to be innuendo. Product development is hard at work fixing this issue. 😉

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We’re all in this together

One of the most frustrating things for me to explain as a feminist and queer rights advocate (and occassional opponent of racism, although as a white male geek I am pretty out of touch on this one, even if one of my family members is in a relationship with a Maori woman) is that injustice spills over from one category into another.

The most obvious starting point of how injustice defies simple categorisation is convergence: Consider a butch, fat, Maori lesbian. She doesn’t only suffer from racism, which is notable especially in the isolation from more peer groups with more emphasis on acadamic achievement and in the systematic discrimination in the enforcement of laws and regulations, but she also suffers multiplicative reinforcement of how different the brownness of her skin makes her. She has to deal with not just being a dyke, but being a fat dyke- stereotyped as unhealthy both physically and emotionally. Because she does not want to act like a stereotypical woman, she will often be isolated from the support of her fellow women in dissuading sexism, and because she’s a lesbian she is likely to lose support from her fellow Maori in solidarity against racism. And because she converges these concerns, her allies against any of her problems- gender roles, body shape, sexism, homophobia, or racism- will also be tarred with the brush of all of those problems.

This is a particular barrier against interracial couples, for instance, especially with Pakeha or white women in relationships with men from cultures that do not accept women’s liberation as a norm- leading to a sort of permanent tension in the relationship between racist undertones and sexist ones. That these kinds of couples succeed and deal with those tensions at all is a wonderful reminder of how small these issues can be when we just acknowledge them and resolve to listen to each other.

Convergence means not only that you experience two types of discrimination, but that those types of discrimination feed off each other and become more than adding up two parts of a whole: discrimination against black women keeps the usually challenged racism, whether invisible and systematic or overt and individualised, disguised under the convenient umbrella of sexism having “achieved its goals”, with the issues holding back women in income being excused as related to education, (despite women doing significantly better than men in formal education) a fair chance to sue for systematic pay discrimination dismissed as frivolous litigation. (women in the United States are currently regarded as having to file within 180 days of the first incidence of this systematic discrimination in order to be eligible to have their case heard)

There’s also what I call overflow. (I’ll admit that I haven’t seen any literature on this one yet. I’ve probably just not looked hard enough) This has created the image of radical, man-hating lesbian feminists that permeates the most brutal sexism. Because feminists support women who have been sorely emotionally traumatised by men and cannot accept them, they are conflated with man-haters. Because feminists have begun to listen to lesbian concerns, feminists are now suspected as being gay in disguise to hide their real agenda. Likewise, men who support feminism are viewed as closeted gays, transsexuals, as being too girly or “not manly enough”, because some male allies have come to the table this way.

Overflow is what makes discrimination against any group a problem for all groups- people who cannot acknowledge their own privilege start to view any significant engagement with the concerns of oppressed groups as wrong, and those of us who are privileged get obstructed by entrenched attitudes for trying to give up advantages we have no right to take for granted. Taking the case of male feminist allies in particular, being the one I’m familiar with, overflow doesn’t just get in the way of things you do to shed your own privilege.

It also involves in people challenging your manhood and conflating you, justified or not, with the groups you sympathise with- because men laugh about these type of things, we’re supposed to joke about clingy ex-girlfriends, and agree Helen Clark is some sort of robotic feminazi dictator machine, because it’s a matter of fact, not of perception- never mind that accepting the factuality of a label involves a certain amount of confirmation bias, because it takes a lot more mental flexibility to turn around labels- like slut, for instance- to apply equally to all groups. And even when this IS done, usually we qualify said labels differently. “Man-slut” is a great example- the qualification implies that men are an exception to the rules- much like calling a bussinessperson a “working woman”. Because apparently it’s unnatural for women to work, or workers to be women 😉

The confusion of politeness

So, one more post about the reaction to this whole Fritzl thing. This ought to be the last though, I think. Having reminded several people I’ve talked to about this news that yes, sex without explicit1 and free2 consent is rape, and weasling out of calling it such is just perpetuating this weird social attitude that while rape is not okay, we don’t necessarily have to condemn it explicitely. As you can imagine, the internal cognitive dissonance of this self-contradictory position makes it pretty funny to even write it down, let alone say it out loud.

One objection I’ve repeatedly heard (although fortunately not yet from people whose opinions I trust and value on this sort of matter) is that rape is not a term that is okay for public discussion. I pushed on this a bit harder and was told we should use the term “non-consensual sex” in the public arena. Why? While rape is a term that covers an emotive subject, it’s not inherently offensive, the word itself has no religious or cultural bias, and there are no strong taboos associated with it. Every bit of revoltion we feel when we hear the word rape is directly merited by the concept. What’s more, I feel that “sex” implies consentuality. The term “non-consensual sex” seems about as appropriate for rape as “non-violent violence” does for mental abuse. I pushed further for clarification about why rape is so objectionable a word to use. Apparently rape is “impolite.” And that one word explained everything I needed to know. Continue reading