The importance of words

Expanding on some thoughts I had on Twitter.

It’s an interesting phrase, “language policing”. We all know what the police are. Even people with the good fortune/whiteness to have mainly positive interactions with them would describe their role as “enforcement”: applying force to ensure rules are followed. It’s used negatively – unlike actual police who are (theoretically) empowered by the state, this kind of “policing” is done by people who have taken authority upon themselves.

I use “body policing” and “food policing” as pejorative terms – because it’s no one else’s business what someone looks like or what they eat. But “language policing” is a pejorative I’m usually on the “wrong” side of  – because I ask people to think about the language they use.

When I wrote this in November I was responding to the idea that it’s “just one word”:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face” …

But now I’ve been thinking about how “just one word” is a big deal. I said on Twitter:

Language is so important my first feminist thoughts came from learning as a tiny child that all men were “Mr” but women were “Mrs” or “Miss”. I can literally remember my mum explaining (so a tiny child could grok) that women could use “Ms” as an act of resistance against patriarchy. From day 1 of primary school you either learn or unconsciously accept a woman’s marital status is the 1st thing to know about her. But not a man’s.

*That* is how important “just a word” is.

“Either learn or unconsciously accept” is the key bit. I was raised by a feminist in a family of academics and English teachers, so I was always going to think about language and subtext and framing. That doesn’t happen for most people.

They go on with their lives, right as rain, and it becomes a natural, normal, totally-unimportant fact of life that women are either married or unmarried, and you need to know which.

Is it so difficult to see how just one word – two or three letters in front of someone’s name – reinforces a basic tenet of patriarchy, i.e. that women are defined by their relationships with men?

Nobody (hardly anybody) walks around thinking “I’m totally going to oppress a woman by calling her ‘Miss’.” But language influences the way we see the world. When we blithely accept we call all dudes “Mr” but have to ask if a woman is “Mrs” or “Miss” or “Ms” (she’s the stroppy one!) we don’t consciously think “All women are defined by their marital status”. When we label something “hysterical” we don’t consciously think “I’ll minimize women’s credibility by referencing archaic ideas about physiology and historic beliefs about women being incapable of rational thought. Haha!”

But those are the messages you’re reinforcing in your own mind, or reinforcing in the minds of others. Unintentionally, you are reducing women to their marital status or invoking historic ideas which undermine their speech.

(Note: dudes, some of you do use words like “hysteria”, “bitches” and “cunts” deliberately to wind us up, and we can tell, and it’s really not helping to convince us that you’d be a great ally if we just lightened up.)

What to do? Think about the language you’re using. Especially if you’re in a position where your words are going to be read or heard by a lot of people – people who don’t know you well and may not give you benefit of the doubt. Get someone else to check for you – it’s really difficult to kick linguistic habits (she says, checking how often she’s used the word “actually” this post). Be open-minded when someone points out an unintentional meaning you didn’t realise you were giving out.

Some people may not be polite about it. But if you think it sucks being told “your language is sexist”, imagine spending your whole life filling out forms which demand you identify yourself as Property Of A Dude, Not Property Of A Dude Yet, or Probably An Angry Lesbian.

You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to change your language at all. But you may be uncomfortable knowing that for many people, it marks you as a sexist douchebag. You may get called up on it again. If you’re okay with that, carry on, brave soldier of privilege. But you know what you’re doing now.

The death-throes of patriarchy

Another day, another panic-mongering, deceptive, anti-social headline from Family First, as reported on Twitter …

This time they’re going for Rainbow Youth’s literally life-saving anti-bullying programmes. Inside Out is described on Rainbow Youth’s website as:

A friendly and accessible learning resource to help increase understanding and support of sex, gender and sexuality diversity, so we can all belong

The horror.

Family First is playing a very boring old tune. But it’s illuminating how insistent they get on these matters. Programmes like Inside Out are literally doing nothing more than saying “being a teenager is super complicated and you’re working out who you are and let’s provide a safe environment for you to do that in.”

And this cannot be allowed. We cannot give kids a platform to ask questions about their gender or identity or role in society. We cannot provide people with meaningful choice in the kinds of relationships they have with others. This way lies the total destruction of our society.

Which is true …

obi-wan point of view

Family First’s worldview – a mythical ~1950s Golden Age~ of heterosexual, monogamous, sex-for-procreation-only families with 2.5 kids – is dying. And they know it.

Their society cannot survive even the merest acknowledgement that there are other ways to be than cisgendered, heterosexual, and monogamous.

This is their problem: not that there’s no place in the world for hetero cis folk in monogamous relationships – heck, I’m one, raving feminist lefty that I am! – but that Bob McCoskrie and his little band of bigots are so insecure that they can’t comprehend other people choosing different things to them. To patriarchal, religious extremists, their way must be the only way.

And it’s simply not. There are many different kinds of people, with many relationships and family arrangements, and many, many different ways to love. All are valuable. And untold harm is done to people – especially to young people – when we try to jam everyone into one narrow box and ignore all the other ones which are also labelled “family”.

Here’s No Doubt’s take.

When are identities political?

Morgan Godfery has a great post up at The Ruminator about the Auckland housing/Chinese surnames story. His last paragraph inspired me to start jotting down notes for this post on the bus home:

The irony here is that almost a year ago a handful of Labour MPs, Twyford included, were complaining about how their party lost the election because it was focused on identity. These same MPs are now pandering to issues of identity. Singling out ethnic Chinese, in a blatant attempt to court what David Shearer once called the white blokes’ vote, is the worst form of identity politics.

In the same way Morgan asks “When are numbers racist?” I’m going to springboard off that paragraph into another question: When are identities political?

As Morgan points out, there are no cries of “that’s just identity politics” when we’re singling out specific ethnicities for criticism. But stumble into any mainstream leftwing discussion and say “the casualisation of work disproportionately harms women” and the objections will be immediate and very loud.

The key difference, perhaps, is that one situation involves naming the other and categorising their otherness as part of a problem which needs to be fixed. One involves naming yourself and demanding that your problems be accepted as real and important.

That means identity isn’t the real problem. Self-identity is. Taking on the labels which capitalist society has forced upon us – its primary way of replicating its own values and dispossession of the majority – and saying “Yes I am, yet you will treat me with dignity anyway.” It means not being a passive object, exploited for the benefit of capital. It means demanding the right to be a subject – a person not just worthy of fair and equal treatment, but whose interests capital must serve.

This is why identity politics is a bad thing to people who have benefited from the power imbalances which fuel capitalism. When anti-feminists declare that men are “losing their rights”, they kind of have a point: increasing gender equality does mean men lose the right to abuse their wives and lose the right to automatically get custody and lose the right to get paid more for doing the same job without anyone questioning it.

Along any of the “identity” lines where capitalism fences off a group of people and says “your labour and your lives are worth less than other workers'”, rebalancing the scales will involve a relative loss of power and privilege for the group who were “fortunate” enough to be valued just that little bit more.

The irony is that those privileged groups will then complain that it’s the less-valued groups’ labour which is driving down their wages and conditions (see the far-too-common, “women’s lib caused wages to drop” argument any time the gender pay gap gets raised). We all see the sense in the old parable about the rich man, the working-class man and the unemployed man sharing a pie; the rich man eats nine slices, gives the working-class man one, and says “look out, that unemployed guy’s trying to steal your pie.” Yet we stumble when the scenario isn’t about white men at the pub; when it’s women, or migrants, or young workers who are painted as the enemy.

When we fully appreciate that sexism, racism, and xenophobia are alternate sides of the same (apparently multidimensional) coin as class oppression, we can easily accept that identity politics isn’t separate from the leftwing struggle, much less an unwelcome distraction. It’s part and parcel of the same struggle.

That’s why it’s so infuriating to be told, effectively, and persistently, to wait until after the revolution. Overthrowing racism is part of the revolution. Smashing patriarchy is part of the revolution. Disrupting the gender binary is part of the revolution.

The difficulty doesn’t lie in reconciling social justice with economic justice. It lies in the resistance of those of us, who have benefited from wealth or whiteness or maleness, against challenging the systems which benefit us. And, for those of us on the left, the resistance against acknowledging that we aren’t without sin. We aren’t cured of a lifetime of sexist or racist indoctrination just because the lightbulb of class consciousness came on at some point.

This isn’t a dig at anyone. I myself have benefited from my race, from having a gender identity and sexual orientation which are “normal”, from the kind of education that means I’m quite comfortable beginning a sentence with “I myself.” I have learned, but I’m not perfect.

In the same way an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, and it can be downright dangerous to think you’re “cured”, people raised under patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism will always be touched by the values of patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalism. We can’t assume we’re “cured” just because we changed the language we use to describe people we don’t like, or totally hired a woman this one time because she really was the best candidate. That way lies complacency and the absolute certainty of screwing up.

So we need to think really hard before we start pointing the finger at “other” identity groups, and we need to stop treating “identity politics” as competition to “important issues”. If there is a struggle of the oppressed against the powerful, being on the side of the oppressed is what being leftwing means to me.

Newsflash: Men aren’t wolves

One of the weird paradoxes of patriarchy is the idea that on the one hand, men are naturally the dominant group in society because they’re more rational, have bigger brains, control their emotions better, and make more sensible decisions and life choices; and on the other, women must dress “modestly”, act “respectably” and take all kinds of “preventative” measures against sexual harassment and violence because men are literally incapable of stopping themselves from being abusive to women.

It’s beautifully highlighted by this article about a man getting very defensive after the woman he and his mates had been harassing on a daily basis for a month reported them to the police. (For the love of your brains, do not read the comments.)

If you break down Ian Merrett’s excuses for his boorish behaviour, there’s the More Rational, Bigger Brains, Less Emotional excuses:

“We stopped doing it … it’s not worth getting into trouble over some silly little girl. I don’t know why she complained, she must be thinking things above her station.” Because that’s not demeaning at all!

“I have wolf-whistled so many girls … and never had a complaint before … But I’ve got a girlfriend so need to be careful what I say.” Because women are cuh-RAY-zee and fly totally off the handle when you brag to the media about how many women you’ve “snogged” after sexually harassing them.

And then there’s the Literally Incapable of Controlling Myself excuses.

“I didn’t even see her face” … but I wolf-whistled at her anyway, which means it couldn’t “possibly be sexual harassment” because when you’re objectifying a person based purely on their gender it’s, um, something else.

If Ms Smart walks past them again and is “lucky” “she will get wolf-whistled again” … even though they “stopped doing it” after the police told them about the complaint.

So to sum up the wisdom of Mr Merrett:

  • wolf-whistling is just a natural reflex triggered by the vague presence of a woman
  • but they can stop doing it as long as someone in uniform is telling them not to
  • except they won’t
  • but it’s a total compliment anyway to have someone’s subconscious brain-spasm react to your existence
  • and you shouldn’t feel objectified just because the vague shape of your body is sufficient to trigger pushy sexual vocalisations. That would be thinking above your station.

And they say it’s feminists who think men are animals …

International (Working) Women’s Day

It’s hard to know what to write on this International (Working) Women’s Day. The issues facing women living under patriarchy remain pretty much what they always are: there’s a basic structural power imbalance, leveraged against women, against people of colour, against people with disabilities, against the working class, against GLBTQ people. This is reflected in how our labour is valued (what jobs we’re allowed to have, how much (less) we’ll be paid, how high we’re allowed to rise), in whether crimes against us are (not) taken seriously, in the fact that people from those groups live life on a higher difficulty setting than others.

The gender pay gap is in the spotlight again, both in terms of blatant women-getting-paid-less-than-men-for-the-same-job discrimination, and also the issue of women’s work, especially “nurturing” care work, being paid less than comparable “men’s” jobs. And when you break gender pay discrimination down by ethnicity, it gets a lot worse if you’re not Pākehā.

The government’s consistent undermining of work rights, refusal to even consider the concept of a living wage,  disprorportionately affects women. The focus by our Ministry of Women’s Affairs (and other groups like the National Council of Women) is still on getting more women onto boards, as though benefiting a few overwhelmingly white, well-off, educated, middle-aged cis women is going to trickle down some equality to the rest of us.

It’s definitely a problem though, given that in a survey of 1,500 large US corporations, there were more CEOs called John – or David – than there were women. With any name.

Women still carry the majority of the burden for housekeeping and child-rearing, which impacts on their careers and financial independence:

About 35 percent of New Zealand women work part-time because they also need to do housework and care for children and other dependents. Even though New Zealand men participate in domestic work more than men in other industrialised countries, women in New Zealand do more than double the unpaid house-work and care.

The issue of our corrections system imprisoning trans women in male prisons has gotten some long-overdue attention – and the violence which is doled out to people who stand against the mainstreaming of once-radical events.

It’s still probably going to take me longer to repay my student loan than my partner – even though his was about double mine when he finished uni.

One could go on and on listing the ways that sexism, and other types of prejudice, impact women’s lives. There’s a concerted campaign online to push women out of gaming and the tech industry. In this year’s Academy Awards there were no women nominated for directing, screenwriting, or cinematography, and no actors of colour. New Zealand’s abortion laws are still stuck in 1977. Our Minister for Women’s Affairs thinks that beauty pageants, which still primarily exist to reinforce narrow stereotypes about women’s value, are great ways to build women’s confidence (presumably so they can get on boards.) Our Prime Minister retracted his promise to apologise to a rape victim after he found out her politics were leftwing.

There has been some progress, absolutely; but there’s still a very long way to go before any of the most damaging effects of patriarchy can be considered cured, or even particularly dented.